WASHINGTON – As the United States and other nations build ties with rebels and political opponents trying to oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, intelligence suggests al-Qaida and other terrorists have a small presence within the opposition group, a top military commander said Tuesday.
Adm. James Stavridis, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told Congress that officials have seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah among the rebel forces, but at this point no evidence there are significant numbers within the group's leadership.
Questions about who the rebels are have escalated as the U.S.-led coalition moved into its second week of attacks against Gadhafi forces, halting their progress and paving the way for the ragtag opposition to regain lost ground. At this point, Stavridis said, there is "more than a reasonable chance of Gadhafi leaving."
Despite those assertions, however, Stavridis and other U.S. officials have yet to articulate an end game for the operation, despite repeated criticism from Congress that the mission has not been clearly defined.
"As you look at the spectrum of how this unfolds it's premature to say what is our exit strategy," Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that events are too fluid right now.
In London, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan political opposition fighting Gadhafi, "to talk about the path forward." And she implored an international conference meeting on the Libya's future to band together to free the North African nation from Gadhafi's grip and convince his loyalists to abandon the regime.
A senior administration official said the U.S. will soon send an envoy to Libya to deepen relations with leaders of the rebels. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the meeting doesn't constitute formal recognition of the opposition.
Eleven days into a military assault that has cost the Pentagon roughly $550 million so far, the U.S. was in the process of turning over control of the mission to NATO in the next day or two. The U.S. military, however, is likely to continue to play a significant role in the operation, including continued airstrikes, intelligence gathering, electronic warfare and aerial refueling.
The military has insisted that it is not coordinating attacks with the rebels to help advance their offensive, but simply working to protect the people. But the strikes paved the way for the rebels to regain a key city over the weekend, and begin again their march west toward Gadhafi strongholds.
President Barack Obama told the American people Monday night that U.S. intervention in Libya was necessary to prevent a slaughter of civilians. But he also said that ousting Gadhafi militarily would be a mistake, and suggested that the diplomatic road to his removal was the path to take.
Addressing officials from more than three dozen countries at the London conference, Clinton said military means alone won't force Gadhafi out after about 42 years in power, and that further sanctions and diplomatic pressure ought to be applied.
"All of us must continue to increase the pressure on and deepen the isolation of the Gadhafi regime through other means as well," Clinton said at the London conference. "All of us seated around this table must speak with one voice in support of a transition that leads to a brighter future for Libya."
Members of Congress, meanwhile, continued to express concerns about the cost of the mission.
The $550 million figure on the initial U.S. costs is not complete because it does not include such money as pay for U.S. sailors, airmen and other forces who would have been deployed somewhere in the world anyway. But it is the first official figure released on the cost of setting up the no-fly zone in Libya and protecting civilians.
Of that total, about 60 percent was "for munitions, the remaining costs are for higher operating tempo" of U.S. forces and of getting them there, Cmdr. Kathleen Kesler, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Tuesday.
She said officials expect to spend about $40 million over the next three weeks as U.S. forces are reduced, and then see that level of costs continue monthly as the operation goes on.
Obama announced Monday that NATO would take command over the entire Libya operation on Wednesday, and Stavridis told senators the U.S. transfer of control would be in 24-48 hours. The turnover would keep Obama's pledge to get the U.S. out of the lead fast, but neither could estimate when the conflict might end.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek in Washington and Bradley Klapper in London contributed to this report.