A heated debate within the Obama administration centers on Al-Qaida's role.
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is engaged in a fierce debate over whether to supply weapons to the rebels in Libya, senior officials said Tuesday, with some fearful that providing arms would deepen U.S. involvement in a civil war and that some of the rebel fighters may have links to Al-Qaida.
The debate has drawn in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, these officials said, and has prompted an urgent call for intelligence about a ragtag band of rebels who are waging a town-by-town battle against Moammar Gadhafi, from a base in eastern Libya long suspected of supplying terrorist recruits.
"Al-Qaida in that part of the country is obviously an issue," a senior official said.
These fears surfaced publicly on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when the military commander of NATO, Adm. James Stavridis, told a Senate hearing that there were "flickers" in 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 Gadhafi, has placed mounting pressure on the United States to provide greater assistance to the rebels.
London meeting on Libya
The question of how best to support the opposition dominated an international conference about Libya on Tuesday in London, attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other coalition leaders.
While Clinton said the Obama administration had not yet decided on whether to actually transfer arms, she reiterated the United States had a right to do so, despite an arms embargo on Libya, because of the U.N. Security Council's broad resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians.
In a reflection of the seriousness of the administration's debate, President Obama said Tuesday that he was keeping his options open on arming the rebels.
"I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in," Obama told NBC News. "We're still making an assessment partly about what Gadhafi's forces are going to be doing. Keep in mind, we've been at this now for nine days."
But some administration officials argue that supplying arms would further entangle the United States 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.
One official said the United States might simply let others supply the weapons.
The question of whether to arm the rebels underscores the difficult choices the United States faces as it tries to move from being the leader of the military operation to a member of a NATO-led coalition, with no clear political endgame.
It also carries echoes of previous U.S. efforts to arm rebels, in Angola, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of which backfired. The United States has a deep, often unsuccessful, history of arming insurgencies.
Gadhafi's removal the goal
In London, 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 Libyan opposition leader, Mahmoud Jibril -- acknowledged that as a group, the rebels were largely 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.
In his testimony, Stavridis said, "We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces."
The 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, she said.
But a spokesman for the rebels, Mahmoud Shammam, said they would welcome arms, contending that with better weaponry they would already have defeated Gadhafi's forces.
"We ask for political support more than arms," Shammam said, "but if we have both, that would be good."
So far, the rebels have obtained arms from defecting Gadhafi loyalists, as well as from abandoned ammunitions depots.
France wants rebels armed
A European diplomat said France was adamant that the rebels be more heavily armed and was in discussions with the Obama administration about how France would bring this about.
"We strongly believe that it should happen," said the diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had had conversations with two senior administration officials about this issue.
He said he was most concerned about how the rebels 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.