WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S.-led military action in Libya has bolstered rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces, but the international operation could continue for months, the Obama administration says.
Ahead of President Barack Obama's national address Monday to explain his decision to act against the Libyan leader, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in appearances on the Sunday talk shows that the intervention had effectively rendered Gadhafi's forces defenseless against air attacks and created the conditions for opposition advances westward.
In interviews taped Saturday, Gates and Clinton also defended the narrowly defined U.N. mandate to prevent atrocities against Libyan civilians and said the U.S. had largely accomplished its goals.
"We have taken out his armor," Gates said, adding that the U.S. soon would relinquish its leading role in enforcing a no-fly zone and striking pro-Gadhafi ground targets intent on violence.
Clinton said "we're beginning to see, because of the good work of the coalition, his troops begin to turn back toward the west — and to see the opposition begin to reclaim the ground they had lost."
Libyan rebels reclaimed an important oil town and kept pushed westward Sunday toward the capital, Tripoli. Brega, a main oil export terminal in eastern Libya, fell after a skirmish late Saturday. Rebel forces also seized the tiny desert town of Al-Egila on their way to the massive oil refining complex of Ras Lanouf.
U.S.-led airstrikes allowed anti-government forces to recapture the key eastern city of Ajdabiya.
NATO's top decision-making body was to meet Sunday to expand its enforcement of the no-fly zone to include air strikes against Libyan ground targets.
The military progress follows deep criticism against Obama from lawmakers upset that the administration hadn't sought greater congressional input on Libya.
Gates said the no-fly zone was fully in place and could be sustained with "a lot less effort than it took to set it up." He said the Pentagon was planning how to draw down resources that will be assigned to European and other countries pledging to take on a larger role.
But asked on ABC's "This Week" if that would mean a U.S. military commitment until year's end, Gates said, "I don't think anybody knows the answer to that."
The lack of clarity on that question reflects a worry for lawmakers clamoring to hear fuller explanations from the administration on why the U.S. was embroiling itself in another Muslim conflict and what the ultimate goals of the intervention are.
Clinton and Gates insisted that the objective was limited to protecting civilians, even as they hoped the pressure of concerted international penalties and isolation might strip away Gadhafi's remaining loyalists and cause his government to crumble.
"One should not underestimate the possibility of the regime itself cracking," Gates said on NBC's "Meet The Press."
He said Gadhafi shouldn't feel too comfortable after 42 years of dictatorship: "I wouldn't be hanging any new pictures if I were him."
Clinton added that Gadhafi's military and political advisers were increasingly seeking talks as they feel the international pressure.
The administration is "sending a message to the people around him," she said. "Do you want to be a pariah? Do you really want to end up in the international criminal court? Now is your time to get out of this and to help change the direction."
Yet even after a week of air strikes, Pentagon officials say forces loyal to Gadhafi are a potent threat to civilians. Defense officials are looking at plans to expand the firepower and airborne surveillance systems in the military campaign, including using the Air Force's AC-130 gunship armed with cannons that shoot from the side doors, as well as helicopters and drones. Gates said the U.S. could supply rebels with arms, but the administration hadn't made a decision.
Talk of any escalation will surely raise concerns. With the United States already trying to exit long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the administration has gone to great efforts to define the Libya operations as limited in scope and duration — and necessary to prevent Gadhafi from possibly massacring civilians while his forces were reaching the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Asked if the Libyan conflict posed a threat to the United States, Gates said it was "not a vital national interest" but he insisted that the situation nevertheless demanded U.S. involvement. With tenuous democratic transitions under way in the neighboring countries of Tunisia and — more important to the U.S. — Egypt, allowing the entire region to be destabilized was a dangerous option.
Clinton noted how the strife affects Europe's key interests, from oil to immigration, and that their concerns were important. "We asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago," she said. "They have been there. And a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked."
"When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies," she added. "This was in their vital national interest."
Those themes will likely be taken up by Obama, who cited "significant success" in the war and defended the U.S. intervention as lawful and critical to save thousands of lives. In his weekend radio and Internet address, he noted that the U.S. cannot get involved in every world crisis, but said if Gadhafi was threatening a "bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region ... it's in our national interest to act. And it's our responsibility."
With the tumult spreading so widely throughout the Arab world, it has been hard for the U.S. to avoid questions of double-standards. The administration took some criticism as it gradually hardened its position against a long-time ally in Egypt's Hosni Mubarak before he left power, and has faced the same with the decision to back the U.N.'s call for a Libyan no-fly zone and arms embargo with military force.
Clinton declined to say if the U.S. might be willing to enter other conflicts where governments attack their own people. She told CBS' "Face The Nation" that it was too early to talk of intervention in Syria, where security forces have opened fire on protesters amid nationwide unrest. Unlike Gadhafi, Syrian President Bashar Assad is a "different leader" and many members of Congress who have visited the country "believe he's a reformer," Clinton said.
Asked about Yemen, where the embattled U.S. ally Ali Abdullah Saleh was just barely holding on to his 33-year-old grip on power, Gates cited grave concerns.
"The most aggressive branch of al-Qaida ... operates out of Yemen," he said. "We have had a lot of counterterrorism cooperation from President Saleh and the Yemeni security services, so if the government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we'll face some additional problems out of Yemen.
Saleh's allies and opponents failed to make progress Saturday in talks on a possible exit for their president.
Islamic militants seized control of a weapons factory and a nearby town in Yemen's south Sunday, according to a witness and security officials.
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