Tuesday, March 29, 2011

No Weapons Yet for Rebels: NATO Studying Rebel Army

Updated 11:30 p.m. edt

President Obama left open a possibility tonight for arming the Libyan rebels, but the question remained over timing and how long the insurgents can hang on against Moammar Gadhafi's tanks and artillery.

"I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in,' he said in an interview with NBC News. "We're still making an assessment partly about what Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing."

Obama noted that the air campaign has only been going on for nine days, promising it would continue to pummel Gadhafi's armor.

"One of the questions that we want to answer is do we start getting to a stage where Gadhafi's forces are sufficiently degraded where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups," Obama said.

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Updated 7:15 p.m. edt

President Obama said in an interview with CBS today that he believes the people around Moammar Gadhafi think the Libyan strongman's "days are numbered" and will he eventually have to negotiate his departure from power.

"I think that Gadhafi's camp, people around him, are starting to recognize that their options are limited and their days are numbered, and so they're probably reaching out to a range of different people. But that information may not have filtered to Gadhafi yet, and I think it's too early for us to start having formal negotiations," Obama said.

"Qaddafi knows exactly what he needs to do to stop the constant bombardment that he's under, and it may at some point shift to him figuring out how to negotiate an exit, but I don't think we're at that point yet," he added.

Obama gave interviews today while in New York to the three major television networks.

Responding to new questions (see below) over whether any of the rebel fighters are members of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Obama said insurgent leaders that U.S. officials have met with all passed muster.

"Well, first of all, I think it's important to note that the people that we've met with have been fully vetted, so we have a clear sense of who they are, and so far they're saying the right things, and most of them are professionals, lawyers, doctors, people who appear to be credible. That doesn't mean that all the people, among all the people who opposed Qaddafi there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests," Obama said.

"That's why I think it's important for us not to jump in with both feet but to carefully consider: What are the goals of the opposition? What kind of transition do they want to bring about inside of Libya? Because our main concern here is the Libyan people as well as stability in the region," he added.

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Coalition nations did not make a decision today in London as to whether they will arm Libyan rebels, who, according to NATO's commander, are rumored to have fighters linked to jihadist groups among them.

"There could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country chose to do that. We have not made that decision at this time," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters after the meetings.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said arming the rebels "was not raised" at all at the meeting attended by representatives of the Libyan rebel government, 40 countries, the United Nations and the Arab League.

"We welcome any help we can get from any country," Interim Transitional National Council spokesman Mahmoud Shamma said at the London meetings. "We don't have the arms, otherwise we would finish Gaddafi in a few days."

The coalition forces are once again stalled and are ceding territory today back to Moammar Gadhafi's forces as they attempted to push from their stronghold in Eastern Libya to the central part of the war-ravaged nation.

But it appears that until the coalition gets a handle on just who the rebels are, getting them their own armor and anti-tank weapons is still a ways off.

U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander, told a Senate hearing today intelligence indicates there are "flickers" of jihadists among the rebels, but there is not enough information to say for sure.

"We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential Al Qaeda, Hezbollah. We've seen different things," Stavridis said. "But at this point I don't have detail sufficient to say there is a significant Al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the known rebel leaders, however, pass muster with the U.S., but they will not speak for the background of every Libyan rebel fighter.

“The leaders that Secretary Clinton met have made clear what they’re principles are and we believe that they are meritorious,” Carney told reporters. “That doesn’t mean that everyone who opposes Moammar Gadhafi in Libya is someone whose ideals we can support.”

Stavridis told the Senate hearing that NATO and the coalition are trying to gather all the Intel they can on the rebel army.

"We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces," he said.

It would not be the first time NATO has helped rebels with jihadist elements. It has been documented that the fighters in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s who were threatened by the genocidal Serbian leadership's "ethnic cleansing" campaign. The consensus is it was the right decision to help the rebels in Bosnia and Kosovo, since it has not come back to haunt NATO.

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