WASHINGTON - A stalemate appears to be emerging in Libya between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi but the United States should not make any decision to arm the rebels without knowing more about them, a top U.S. general said Thursday.
The comments at a Senate hearing by General Carter Ham, who led the coalition air campaign before Washington handed over command to NATO, is likely to stoke debate in the United States about the next steps in Libya.
President Barack Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground forces to the North African oil-exporting nation and top administration officials have stressed the limits of American involvement in what could become a protracted civil war.
Obama has called for Gaddafi to leave but has insisted the United States will not use military force to oust him.
Senator John McCain, a Republican who is pushing for greater U.S. involvement, grilled Ham about the risks of Gaddafi staying in power.
Asked by McCain whether he believed the situation could be described as a stalemate or an emerging stalemate, Ham said: "I would agree with that at present on the ground."
Ham, head of the U.S. military's Africa Command, later acknowledged that the likelihood of a stalemate was higher now than before the United States passed control of the air campaign to NATO on March 31.
"So right now we are facing the prospect of a stalemate, which then means Gaddafi remains in power," McCain said. "Which then means that we will then have a very, very serious situation with Mr. Gaddafi in the future if he remains in power, particularly given his past record."
NO MILITARY SOLUTION
Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham how the war would end, Ham said: "I think it does not end militarily."
He said there was a low likelihood that rebels would be able to fight their way to Tripoli and oust Gaddafi by force.
"That's a very honest answer. I would assess (the chance) as almost impossible," replied Graham, a Republican.
Ham voiced caution about the possibility of arming the Libyan rebels, citing concerns that extremists were attempting to infiltrate their ranks.
"My recommendation would be that we should know more about who they are before we make any determination to arm them," he said.
He cited the stated intent of al Qaeda's North Africa arm, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to aid the opposition.
"It has been very difficult to ascertain whether that intent to support the opposition with AQIM personnel has actually materialized in anything on the ground," Ham said. "We're watching that for indications of that very clearly."
Ham defended the work of NATO in the face of criticism by the head of Libya's rebels, who condemned the alliance this week for its slow chain of command in ordering air strikes to protect civilians.
A NATO air strike Thursday killed at least five rebels near the Libyan port of Brega. It was the second time in less than a week that rebels had blamed NATO for bombing their comrades by mistake.
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