WASHINGTON – The US took its first steps Tuesday short of military assistance to aid Libyan rebels, even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Libyan military command centers "wherever we find them" are legitimate targets for U.S. and NATO air attack, suggesting that strongman Moammar Gadhafi himself is increasingly in danger.
The Obama administration eased its sanctions on Libya, a move that will allow the opposition forces to sell the oil it controls and use the income to buy weapons and other supplies. The White House also ordered the expenditure of up to $25 million in surplus, nonlethal goods and commodities to support and protect the rebels.
At a joint news conference with British Defense Minister Liam Fox, Gates said that NATO planes are not targeting Gadhafi specifically but will continue to take aim at his command centers. That distinction is exceedingly thin, given that Gadhafi is commander in chief of government forces using brute force against civilians seeking to overthrow him.
On Monday, NATO bombs turned sections of his Tripoli headquarters into smoldering ruins.
A Libyan government spokesman denounced Monday's bombing as a failed assassination attempt.
Gates and Fox, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon after a meeting that included Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that facilities from which Libyan leaders command their forces will remain at risk.
"We consider them legitimate targets," Gates said. "We are not targeting him specifically, but we do consider command and control targets to be legitimate targets wherever we find them."
Although Gates said such targets have been considered legitimate from the beginning of the NATO-led air campaign more than one month ago, the initial bombing focus was on Gadhafi's air defenses, supply depots and maneuvering ground forces — particularly those in the east that have clashed repeatedly with rebel forces and those in the western port city of Misrata.
Now NATO is attempting to ratchet up pressure on Gadhafi and those in his inner circle by holding at risk his command centers as well as related structures that enable the regime to exercise power. A separate airstrike in Tripoli on Monday hit Libyan TV and temporarily knocked it off the air.
This appears to represent an evolution of the air campaign, which is adjusting its targeting priorities as Libyan forces have adapted to weeks of airstrikes on ground forces, the imposition of a no-fly zone and persistent rebel assaults in several key areas.
Gates said Libyan military command centers in Tripoli and elsewhere are legitimate targets under the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force — short of inserting an occupying ground force — to protect civilians from attacks by the Libyan government.
"Those (command) centers are the ones that are commanding the forces that are committing some of these violations of humanitarians rights, such as in Misrata," Gates said.
In his remarks, Fox alluded in vague terms to this evolution, saying he, Gates and Mullen had discussed how to "exploit emerging opportunities on the ground" in Libya, mentioning the U.S. decision last week to add armed Predator drone aircraft to the mix of NATO aircraft attacking targets in urban settings.
"There is little doubt across the alliance that this key contribution has proven to be of immense value protecting civilians in Misrata and have helped opposition forces to defend themselves against this brutal regime there," Fox said. Later he asserted, "The regime is on the back foot," and that the sooner Gadhafi "recognizes that the game is up," the better for all.
The $25 million in surplus goods and commodities are meant to support Libyan opposition groups, led by the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, and protect civilians threatened by Gadhafi's forces.
The president issued the directive Tuesday to Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama informed Congress of his decision last week.
The money may not be used to offer Libyan rebels broader assistance, including cash, weapons or ammunition. Included in the assistance are medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, personal protective gear, radios and Halal meals, which are meals prepared according to Islamic tradition.
But the rebels will be able to buy weapons and other supplies from the sale of gas and oil they control, as the result of modified sanctions against Libya.
The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control issued the order to ease the sanctions Tuesday. It will allow U.S. companies to engage in transactions involving oil, natural gas and other petroleum products if the petroleum exports will benefit the council.
The new order modified sanctions the administration had imposed in February freezing $34 billion in assets held by Gadhafi, his family members and top government officials. The original order had imposed sanctions on Libya's oil companies.
Associated Press writers Martin Crutsinger and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.