Thursday, March 24, 2011

The United States will not target Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but the pounding from coalition air strikes could create opportunities for rebel forces to fight back against him, the U.S. secretary of defense said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived next door to Libya Wednesday morning on a one-day visit to Egypt. He told Egyptian and American journalists in Cairo that the U.S. mission in Libya is strictly defined and does not include going afer Gadhafi directly.

There are "a number of possible outcomes" for the Libyan story, he said, and the ending will be up to Libyans themselves, specifically mentioning those closest to the Libyan ruler.

"Whether there are ... further major defections within his own ruling circle, whether there are divisions within his family, there are a variety of possibilities, it seems to me."

Gates suggested the political calculus inside Libya might change thanks to American and coalition airstrikes that have grounded government planes and destroyed some of Gadhafi's tanks and other heavy military equipment.

"A lot of people who were in opposition and who played a role in the early days have hunkered down and it may be the changed circumstances where he (Gadhafi) can't use his aircraft and where he is more challenged using his armor they may return to the fight." Gates said at the question-and-answer session in Cairo. "We just don't know that now."

Gates comments echoed those of President Barack Obama who, in an interview with CNN en EspaƱol reporter Juan Carlos Lopez, said the United States is "examining all our options" in answer to a question about giving military support to the rebels.

"Our hope is that the first thing that happens once we've cleared the space is that the rebels are able to start discussing how they organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people and create a legitimate government," Obama told CNN.

Gates said the United States is communicating with rebel forces, referring indirectly to how U.S. diplomat Chris Stevens is one link, reaching out by telephone.

"That's the only specific channel I've heard of so far," Gates said. On Monday, Gen. Carter Ham, who is overseeing U.S. involvement in the mission, said there were no "formal communications" with rebel groups.

Gates said the level of U.S. contact with the anti-Gadhafi forces "seems to be working so far."

While only one Arab country has joined the coalition's military efforts, other countries are offering different kinds of help, the defense secretary said.

"A number are providing support, assistance; for example, overflight rights and access and so on," he said.

He flatly rejected that possibility that Russia -- which abstained from the U.N. vote that approved the Libyan attacks -- could be a possible mediator in the crisis.

"If there is a mediation to be done, a role to be played, it is among the Libyans themselves. This matter at the end of the day is going to have to be settled by Libyans. It is their country," Gates said.


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