Reagan administration officials yesterday expressed satisfaction over sketchy reports they said they had received from Libya that the U.S. bombing attack apparently had ignited opposition to the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, as President Reagan issued a stern warning that the United States would act again if there are more terrorist provocations.
After a day of confusion and rumor in Washington about Qaddafi's whereabouts, White House officials said he had survived Monday night's raid and appeared to be in control of the Libyan government. But a senior official added that the U.S. attack "seemed to have unleashed rebellious elements in Libya."
There were conflicting reports about the extent and significance of the suspected clashes in the Libyan capital of Tripoli. One official said that "some kind of rebellion" was going on but "how serious and how widespread is very unclear."
Asked by CBS News whether Qaddafi was "losing his grip" on his government, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said, "There may well be some of the people . . . unhappy with him who are trying to take matters into their own hands. In other words, people who have read the lesson that this attack was supposed to administer."
Another official said there were indications "that just below the surface there is discontent with Qaddafi." The bombing targets of the mission had been selected with an eye to inflaming discontent, sources said, as U.S. planes tried to bomb the barracks of an elite guard considered loyal to Qaddafi rather than the quarters of regular Libyan army units.
"Maybe we will see a certain dynamic from this that will bring about a change," a senior official said.
Reagan appeared at a Law Day ceremony in the Old Executive Office Building to pay tribute to the two U.S. Air Force officers who were lost in the bombing mission and to reiterate that the United States would respond to further acts of terrorism with military force.
Speaking of Qaddafi, the president said, "He mistook our love of peace for passivity, and restraint for lack of resolve. He mistook our traditional respect for law and for the human rights that are safeguarded by law for a lack of will to defend against lawlessness. We hope Mr. Qaddafi will not mistake us again."
Administration officials gave conflicting accounts on whether Qaddafi had been wounded in the attack and whether he had left Tripoli. After past crises, including a coup attempt in 1984, Qaddafi has retreated to the desert -- either to Sebha, where he has an inland headquarters, or the Hun Oasis in the Sirtic Desert, southeast of Tripoli, where he was born.
Officials denied a report that appeared in yesterday's Washington Times that Qaddafi had fled to North Yemen.
Despite Reagan's warning to Qaddafi, administration officials appeared yesterday to be trying to quiet fears that every terrorist incident would be met by a U.S. military response.
Officials said there would not be a military attack in retaliation for the shooting of a U.S. Embassy technician in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, or for an unsuccessful Libyan missile attack on a U.S. Coast Guard station on an Italian island 150 miles from Libya.
"In the war on terrorism, you have to have a general policy and implement it tactically, case by case, as you go along," Secretary of State George P. Shultz said. "The United States will use its military power under certain circumstances."
But a White House official emphasized that there would be "no question" that the president was prepared to repeat Monday's action if there were another terrorist action that could be clearly traced to Libya.
Administration officials have offered various explanations for the raid on Libya, saying it was both retaliation for the April 5 bombing of a West Berlin discotheque, in which a U.S. soldier was killed, and a "preemptive" strike to prevent further terrorist attacks in the planning stage.
Richard W. Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that the administration was trying to teach Qaddafi a lesson.
"We're not trying to assassinate Col. Qaddafi," he said. "We're not trying to pick for the Libyan people the leadership they ought to have. That's not going to be our choice."
Despite Murphy's statement, other officials have acknowledged on condition they not be identified that Qaddafi's compound was a direct target of the raids and have suggested there was no U.S. compunction about killing him.
A senior official said after the raid that the targeting of the compound was not "finely grained," saying that it was not clear in advance whether the U.S. bombs would hit Qaddafi's military headquarters or his residence.
In Tripoli, reporters shown results of the bombing at the Qaddafi compound counted seven large craters. The Libyan leader's headquarters, housing sophisticated communications equipment and considered a nerve center of the Libyan terrorist network by U.S. officials, sustained some damage.
U.S. installations throughout the world remained on high alert yesterday in expectation of terrorist retaliation.
The Voice of America continued to beam to the Middle East messages supportive of the U.S. attack. A VOA editorial broadcast in Arabic and English Monday night told the Libyan people that they could expect more attacks if they continued to follow Qaddafi, but did not call directly for overthrowing his government.