- Associated Press - Thursday, March 31, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the United States debates its future participation in the Libyan conflict, Defense Department officials slammed the brakes Thursday on any major American role in aiding opposition groups and insisted that America should not be the one to arm the opposition force.

Even as the White House says that arming the rebels seeking to oust leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi is still under consideration, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the United States still knows little about the opposition force and that some other nation should do the training and equipping.

“My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States,” Mr. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.

Under withering congressional probing and criticism that the mission is expensive and ill-defined, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen sketched out a largely limited role for the U.S. military going forward.

And, while Mr. Gates defended U.S. intervention in Libya, reminding lawmakers that Col. Gadhafi has been a persistent and dangerous enemy, he also acknowledged that efforts to oust the Libyan strongman may not work.

“You could have a situation where you achieve the military goal and not achieve the political goal” of regime change, Mr. Gates said.

Asked about the terrorism threat, Mr. Gates questioned al Qaeda’s ability to capitalize on the unrest rocking the Middle East. In the long run, he said, al Qaeda “is a loser in this revolution that is taking place.”

Amid reports that the CIA has small teams working with the rebels in Libya, Mr. Gates insisted there will be no U.S. military boots on the ground “as long as I am in this job.”

The United States turned over control of the military operation to NATO on Thursday, just hours before Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen told Congress that future U.S. participation will be limited and will not involve a major role in airstrikes as time goes on.

They were unable, however, to answer key questions from clearly agitated lawmakers about the length of the operation and how it will play out if Col. Gadhafi does not relinquish power.

The U.S. goals are unclear, and officials don’t know who the rebels are, said Rep. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican, adding that if it came to a vote, he would not support U.S. involvement in the operation.

He and others repeatedly have complained that Congress has not been consulted sufficiently on the Libya operation, and they chafed that the legislative branch is not willing to be a backseat driver.

The defense leaders struggled to avoid being dragged into the increasingly bitter conflict between Congress and the White House over authorization for the military operation.

In fact, President Obama gathered congressional leaders to the White House and by telephone the day before the mission began to inform them of his decision. The Senate also unanimously approved a resolution March 1 backing the no-fly zone.

And Mr. Gates defended the intervention, noting, “We may not know much about the opposition or the rebels, but we know a great deal about Gadhafi.”

He said concrete barriers first appeared in Washington in 1983 after the United States got reports indicating that Col. Gadhafi wanted to kill President Ronald Reagan. He added, “This guy has been a huge problem for the United States for a long time.”

Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen said Col. Gadhafi’s military has been degraded by as much as 25 percent, but Adm. Mullen noted that regime forces still outnumber the rebels by about 10-to-1.

Meanwhile, they said the opposition groups are fractured and operating independently city by city, and just 1,000 of the rebels are militarily trained.

Their comments came as Col. Gadhafi’s forces struck forcefully back at the rebels this week, recapturing lost ground and triggering pleas for help from the battered and failing opposition forces.

Mr. Gates said that he believes political and economic pressures eventually will drive Col. Gadhafi from power, but the military operation will help force him to make those choices by degrading his defense capabilities.

Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, who is his party’s ranking member on the committee, said the United States must better explain to the American public that this is not an open-ended conflict and that the United States will not become embroiled in a civil war.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, who chairs the committee, said he has concerns about U.S. objectives in Libya.

“History has demonstrated that an entrenched enemy like the Libyan regime can be resilient to airpower,” Mr. McKeon said.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that the CIA has sent small teams of operatives into Libya and helped rescue a crew member of a U.S. fighter jet that crashed.

The CIA’s precise role in Libya is not clear. Intelligence experts said the CIA would have sent officials to make contact with the opposition and assess the strength and needs of the rebel forces in the event Mr. Obama decides to arm them.

Associated Press writers Adam Goldman and Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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