msnbc.com news services
updated 3/10/2011 9:46:30 PM ET 2011-03-11T02:46:30

Libyan rebels have lost momentum and are not likely to dislodge Moammar Gadhafi from power, the top U.S. intelligence official said Thursday as Washington backed further away from any military action.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper's comments at a Senate hearing caught the White House off guard and led one Republican lawmaker to call for his dismissal for "undercutting" U.S. efforts to remove Gadhafi.

President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, criticized Clapper's analysis as "a static and one-dimensional assessment."

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He said it placed too much emphasis on Gadhafi's military strength and did not take into account other factors, such as the international efforts to isolate him.

Clapper said that without a decisive victory by either side, it was possible the North African oil-producing country could break into two or more semi-autonomous states, with Gadhafi retaining control of the capital, Tripoli, and its environs, and the rebels holding on to the eastern city of Benghazi.

Clapper's view that Gadhafi's forces had the upper hand and looked set to prevail led to renewed calls for Obama to take swift action to help the rebels.

"If the head of our intelligence community says, left alone, Gadhafi will not only not go but will defeat the opponents, then it seems to me to make it even more urgent to do something," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Clapper should be fired for giving his analysis publicly.

Donilon said the U.S. would soon send disaster assistance relief teams into rebel-held eastern Libya, but he emphasized that it would be a purely humanitarian mission that "can be in no way seen as a military intervention" and would be entering eastern Libya with the permission of the opposition.

"They are not going in any way shape or form as military operations," he told reporters in a conference call.

As Washington, NATO and the United Nations search for the best way forward, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would meet members of Libya's opposition groups but warned of "a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable" if the United States were to act on its own.

The Obama administration cut ties with Libya's remaining representatives, a move that fell short of severing diplomatic relations.

Rebels opposed to Moammar Gadhafi's rule hold territory in eastern Libya and are fighting off a counter-attack by his forces based in western Libya and his stronghold in Tripoli.

France on Thursday became the first country to recognize the rebels' governing council, and an ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy said his government was planning "targeted operations" to defend civilians if the international community approves.

An official at Sarkozy's office said France would be sending an ambassador to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and receiving a rebel envoy in Paris.

Britain later joined France in urging that the entire European Union recognize the rebels' council.

But there was no concrete sign of Western moves toward military assistance such as the no-fly zone that the rebels pleaded for as they retreated Thursday from Ras Lanouf , a key oil port.

Taking back Ras Lanouf would be a major victory for Gadhafi, reestablishing his power over a badly damaged but vital oil facility and pushing his zone of control further along the main coastal highway running from rebel territory to the capital, Tripoli.

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NATO and the European Union held meetings Thursday to discuss the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya.

NATO said it could react quickly to any decision, but sounded a note of caution.

"If requested and if needed we can respond at very short notice. There are a lot of sensitivities in the region as regards what might be considered foreign military interference," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Sky News.

The United States has made it clear imposing a no-fly zone is a matter for the United Nations and should not be a U.S.-led initiative.

Clapper said Libya's air defenses trail only Egypt in its region and are "quite substantial," describing the high threat posed to U.S. or NATO pilots if the administration were to take on enforcement responsibility of a no-fly zone.

The Libyans possess a lot of Russian equipment with about 31 surface-to-air missile sites, or SAMs, he said. They also have a large number of portable SAMs and an air force of approximately 80 planes — split evenly among transports, helicopters and fighters.

Video: Breaking down the no-fly zone (on this page)

Russia and China, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, are cool to the idea of a no-fly zone.

Russia said in a statement Thursday that it was banning all weapons sales to Libya. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned world powers against meddling in Libya's affairs, calling such involvement "unacceptable".

Gadhafi appeared to have launched his own diplomatic drive.

The Portuguese daily newspaper Publico on Thursday quoted a diplomatic source as saying the Libyan leader was willing to start talks about a transition of power to someone else.

The report followed a meeting between Portugal's foreign minister, Luis Amado, and Gadhafi's envoy in Lisbon.

The source told Publico that the message had to be taken with caution as it was given in response to Amado's proposals for a cessation of hostilities against the rebels and a peaceful change of power.

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"The emissary of the Libyan leader told Amado that Tripoli would accept 'to begin a negotiations process for a transition'," Publico said.

"It is too early, however, to evaluate the real intention of this message and to what extent it is not just a circumstantial declaration ... the message was not presented at the start of the meeting," it said.

The Portuguese Foreign Ministry said the envoy met Amado to explain Tripoli's view of the conflict. Portugal was chosen this week to chair the U.N. Security Council's committee on sanctions.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Explainer: Intervention in Libya – where they stand

  • United States

    Washington has signaled it will not unilaterally take military action against Libya, fearful of plunging the U.S. into another war with a Muslim nation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns that a go-it-alone approach could have unforeseeable and devastating consequences.

    Prominent lawmakers including Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. John McCain have been pressing the Obama administration to impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya to ground Moammar Gadhafi's warplanes and explore other military options, such as bombing runways to stop aircraft taking off.

    But the U.S.-led NATO alliance on March 10 shied away from any military intervention and agreed only to reposition ships in the region and to continue planning for humanitarian aid.

  • Britain

    Britain and France have been preparing a draft resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya to submit to the U.N. Security Council in the event of an "egregious act" against civilians among U.N. Security Council members.

  • France

    France became the first nation to recognize the Libyan National Council, a rebel body fighting to oust Gadhafi, as the legitimate representative of Libya's people. It and Britain have pushed for a no-fly zone. France also reportedly wants to explore the possibility of targeted bombing of Libya as an alternative to imposing a no-fly zone.

  • Germany

    Germany has come out against a no-flight zone over Libya. “We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

  • Russia

    Russia, which has imposed a weapons ban on Libya, depriving Gadhafi’s government of one of its main sources of arms, opposes direct military intervention. As one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Moscow says world powers should not meddle in the affairs of Libya and other African countries. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Western discussions of proposals for a no-fly zone are premature.

  • China

    China, like Russia, opposes direct military intervention. As a permanent U.N. Security Council member, Beijing could veto military strikes in Libya.

  • Arab nations

    The Gulf Cooperation Council, comprised of the Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, considers Gadhafi's regime illegitimate and has expressed support for a no-fly zone.

    The Arab League holds an emergency meeting in Cairo on March 12 to discuss the Libya crisis. If the league’s 22 member countries endorse a no-fly zone, the U.N.  Security Council and NATO could be more inclined to follow suit. The Arab League groups 22 Arab states, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: A photo said to show people gathering during recent days' unrest in Benghazi, Libya. The content, date and location of the image could not be independently verified.
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    Above: Slideshow (81) Conflict in Libya
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    Slideshow (34) Moammar Gadhafi through the years

Video: U.S. treading lightly with Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. treading lightly with Libya

    >>> with a great deal at stake here, the united states continues to tread lightly on what to do about libya, and the director of national intelligence suggested today gadhafi may ultimately prevail in this one. very difficult to know what's really going on behind the scenes these days. an explanation tonight from our chief foreign affairs correspondent, andrea mitchell in our d.c. newsroom. andrea, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the administration tried to speak with one voice today, but as you point out the nation's top spy said without foreign intervention -- defense secretary gates raised serious concerns about whether a no-fly zone with work. in washington secretary of state clinton agreed, the u.s. should not go it alone.

    >> it's easy for people to say do this, do that and then they turn and say, okay, u.s., go do it. you use your assets.

    >> reporter: even as the administration claims that its sanctions are squeezing gadhafi , national intelligence director general clapper told congress that gadhafi will prevail. tonight a senior official said that the president does not believe gadhafi will prevail. tomorrow the president will have to try to explain that at a news conference, try to address those differences. brian.

    >> andrea mitchell from d.c. tonight.

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