White House debates idea of arming Libya rebels
The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to Libyan rebels, senior officials said Tuesday, with some fears that doing so would deepen U.S. involvement in a civil war and that some fighters may have al-Qaida links.
The New York Times
Libya stories and analysis
Elsewhere: Middle East, North Africa
NEW - 06:11 AM
Yemenis hold largest protest yet against leader
NEW - 06:09 AM
Protests march in Syria for 'Day of Martyrs'
NEW - 06:07 AM
Thousands call for trials of Egypt regime figures
Graphics and photos
NEW - 09:00 AM
Video | Yemen protesters won't take no from Saleh
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to Libyan rebels, senior officials said Tuesday, with some fears that doing so would deepen U.S. involvement in a civil war and that some fighters may have al-Qaida links.
The debate — in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — has prompted an urgent call for intelligence about a ragtag band of rebels from a base in eastern Libya long suspected of supplying terrorist recruits, the officials said.
"Al-Qaida in that part of the country is obviously an issue," a senior official said.
The fears surfaced publicly on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when NATO's commander, Adm. James Stavridis, told a Senate hearing that there were intelligence reports about the presence of al-Qaida and Hezbollah members among the rebels. No full picture of the opposition has emerged, Stavridis said. While eastern Libya was the center of Islamist protests in the late 1990s, it is unclear how many groups retain ties to al-Qaida.
The French government, which has led the international charge against Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, has increased pressure on the United States to provide greater assistance to the rebels. The question of how best to support the opposition was the focus Tuesday in London at an international conference attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other coalition leaders.
While Clinton said the administration had not decided whether to transfer arms, she reiterated the United States had a right to do so, despite an embargo on Libya, because of the U.N. Security Council's broad resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians.
But some administration officials argue supplying arms would entangle the country further in a drawn-out civil war because the rebels would need to be trained to use any weapons, even relatively simple rifles and shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons. This could mean sending trainers. It was not clear how that debate was breaking down, although the Pentagon has been most reluctant about any military action in Libya.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has experience in the unintended consequences of arming rebels: As a CIA official in the 1980s, he funneled weapons to Islamic fundamentalists who ousted the Soviets from Afghanistan. Some later became the Taliban.
President Obama on Tuesday said he would not preclude the possibility of arming the rebels. Pressed on the issue in an interview with NBC News, Obama said, "I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in."
"We are still making an assessment about what Gadhafi's forces are doing," the president said.
In a series of interviews with the three major television networks, Obama emphasized that his decision to deploy U.S. forces in Libya should not be applied to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. He told NBC that his policy on Libya should not be construed as an "Obama doctrine" that can be applied in a "cookie-cutter fashion."
The question of whether to arm the rebels also carries echoes of previous U.S. efforts to arm rebels, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of which backfired.
President Obama pledged Monday that he would not commit U.S. ground troops to Libya and that the job of transforming the country into a democracy primarily was for the Libyan people and the international community. But he promised the United States would help the rebels in this struggle.
Clinton and other Western leaders made it clear that the NATO-led operation would end only with the removal of Gadhafi, even if that was not the stated goal of the U.N. resolution.
Clinton — who met for a second time with a senior opposition leader, Mahmoud Jibril — acknowledged that, as a group, the rebels largely were a mystery. "We don't know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know," she said at a news conference.
Coalition members discussed other ways to help the rebels, such as humanitarian aid and money, Clinton said. Some of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan funds may be channeled to the opposition.
But a spokesman for the rebels, Mahmoud Shammam, said they would welcome arms, contending that, with proper weapons, they already would have defeated Gadhafi's forces. "We ask for political support more than arms," Shammam said, "but if we have both, that would be good."
The rebels have obtained arms from defecting Gadhafi loyalists and from abandoned ammunitions depots.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had talked with two senior administration officials about arming the rebels. Levin said he was most concerned about how they would use the weapons after a cease-fire. "Would they stop fighting if they had momentum, or would they be continuing to use those weapons?" he asked.
Gene Cretz, U.S. ambassador to Libya, said last week that he was impressed by the democratic instincts of opposition leaders and that he did not believe they were extremists. But he acknowledged there was no way to know if they were "100 percent kosher, so to speak."
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said some who had fought as insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were bound to have returned home to eastern Libya. "The question we can't answer is: Are they 2 percent of the opposition? Are they 20 percent? Or are they 80 percent?" he said.
Even if the administration resolves these concerns, it was unclear how arming the rebels would be carried out.
"You can't just parachute crates of weapons and ammunition to them," said Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an Army strategist in Iraq in 2005 and 2007.
Information from The Washington Post is included in this report.
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.