A stalemate appears to be emerging in Libya between rebels and forces loyal to Colonel Moammar 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 on 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending American 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.
Mr. Obama has called for Col. Gadhafi 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 Gen. Ham about the risks of Col. Gadhafi staying in power.
Asked by Mr. McCain whether he believed the situation could be described as a stalemate or an emerging stalemate, Gen. Ham said: "I would agree with that at present on the ground."
Gen. 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 Gadhafi remains in power," Mr. McCain said. "Which then means that we will then have a very, very serious situation with Mr. Gadhafi in the future if he remains in power, particularly given his past record."
The debate underscored tensions within Washington about how to best influence events in Libya, where poorly trained rebels are outgunned by Col. Gadhafi's loyalist forces despite a coalition air campaign.
Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham how the war would end, Gen. 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 Col. Gadhafi by force.
"That's a very honest answer. I would assess (the chance) as almost impossible," replied Mr. Graham, a Republican.
But Washington has also been reluctant to firmly side with the rebels, citing concerns that extremists might be among their ranks. A U.S. commander recently said that intelligence detected "flickers" of a possible al-Qaeda presence among the rebels, and an Algerian official said al-Qaeda had acquired some arms in Libya.
Gen. Ham renewed that cautious line on Thursday.
"We would need, I think, necessarily to be careful about providing lethal means to a group unless we are assured that those U.S.-provided weapons would not fall into the hands of extremist organizations," Gen. Ham 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," Gen. Ham said. "We're watching that for indications of that very clearly."
Gen. 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 on 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.