Washington – New U.S. intelligence shows Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi is "seriously considering" fleeing Tripoli for a more secure location outside the capital, according to U.S. officials, raising the prospect Friday that the Libyan leader's hold on power is increasingly fragile.
The intelligence depicts a Libyan leader who "doesn't feel safe anymore" in Tripoli because of stepped-up strikes by NATO aircraft and by battlefield gains by rebel forces, according to a senior U.S. national security official briefed on the recent reports that the intelligence community has shared with the White House and other agencies.
The timing behind any possible move is not known and does not appear to be imminent, a U.S. official said. Such intelligence has been seen before, although with less intensity. U.S. intelligence agencies have seen no indications that Qaddafi intends to leave the country, the officials said.
Nonetheless, US officials believe military pressure on Tripoli in recent days has prompted Qaddafi to seek safer ground, after more than three months of allied attacks. Qaddafi has several residences and other facilities outside Tripoli to which he could relocate, said a senior U.S. defense official.
The intelligence disclosure by U.S. officials comes as the White House tries to fend off congressional efforts to curtail American participation in the NATO-led Libya campaign.
President Barack Obama, who Wednesday announced the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, has limited the US role in attacking Qaddafi's forces, taking a backseat to European allies.
Signs of progress would be likely to bolster support for U.S. participation in the Libya campaign, as Obama faces mounting criticism from Republicans and Democrats over the effort.
Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the legal grounds for Washington's continued involvement in the conflict. A bill set for a vote Friday would authorize U.S. participation in Libya for one year, but require "a full and updated rationale" from the Obama administration for conducting military operations.
Another bill, also set for Friday, sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), would block U.S. drone strikes in Libya.
U.S. officials cited intelligence showing the military campaign in Tripoli was taking a toll on the regime. "NATO's efforts to reduce the Libyan regime's capability to command and control military forces are having an effect," the senior defense official said. "It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to operate inside Tripoli."
Some U.S. officials, though eager for Qaddafi's departure from power, are now worrying that NATO and Libya's African neighbors are not properly planning for the chaos that might result, in the same way that lack of planning for the fall of Saddam Hussein contributed to the long war that followed in Iraq.
"We, the international community, could be in post-conflict Libya tomorrow and there isn't a plan, there is not a good plan," the senior U.S. commander in Africa, Gen. Carter Ham, told The Wall Street Journal.
Ham predicted that Qaddafi could fall quickly, underlining the need for an allied plan to deal with the aftermath. He said the United Nations or African Union might have to contribute a significant ground force to Libya. He stressed that the U.S. would not send troops.
"If it ends in chaos, if it is a state collapse and all the institutions of the government fall apart, you will potentially need a sizable force on the ground to secure critical infrastructure and maintain law and order," Ham said.