WASHINGTON — 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.