AJDABIYA, Libya — As word surfaced Wednesday that President Barack Obama had authorized CIA operations in Libya and that the agency was using clandestine operatives to gather intel for airstrikes, the rebels lost ground and pleaded for heavier bombardment of Moammar Gadhafi's troops.
Obama signed the order, known as a presidential "finding," within the last two or three weeks, four government sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that CIA operatives have been collecting intelligence and making contacts with rebels. The agents' precise role was unclear.
The CIA sent small teams of operatives into Libya after the agency's station in the capital was forced to close, and CIA officers assisted in the rescue of one of the two crew members of an F-15E Strike Eagle that crashed, an American official and a former U.S. intelligence officer told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
They said CIA helped safely recover the F-15E Strike Eagle's weapons specialist, who was first picked up by rebels after the crash March 21. The pilot was rescued by Marines.
They suffered only minor injuries, the military has said. The crew ejected after the aircraft malfunctioned during a mission against a Libyan missile site.
Because U.S. and allied intelligence agencies still have many questions about the identities and leadership of anti-Gadhafi forces, any covert U.S. activities are likely to proceed cautiously until more information about the rebels can be collected and analyzed, officials said.
"The whole issue on training and equipment requires knowing who the rebels are," said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA Middle East expert who has advised the Obama White House.
The CIA would not comment on its activity.
"No decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any groups in Libya," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "We're not ruling it out or ruling it in."
Obama said in a national address Monday night that U.S. troops would not be used on the ground in Libya. The statement allowed for wiggle room as the president explores options in case he decides to use covert action to ship arms to the rebels and train them. That would require a presidential finding.
In that event, the CIA would take the lead, as it has done in the past such as in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks and the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. In those covert action programs, CIA officers along with special operation forces were sent in, providing arms to opposition forces to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Gadhafi's land forces outmatch the opposition by a wide margin and are capable of threatening the civilian resistance, said the senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Libya, Gadhafi's ground forces recaptured a strategic oil town Wednesday and moved within striking distance of another major eastern city, nearly reversing the gains rebels made since international airstrikes began.
Rebels pleaded for more help, while a senior U.S. intelligence official said government forces are making themselves harder to target by abandoning tanks for civilian "battle wagons": minivans, sedans and SUVs with makeshift armaments.
The change not only makes it harder to distinguish Gadhafi's forces from the rebels, it also requires less logistical support, the official said on condition of anonymity.
The official said airstrikes have degraded Gadhafi's forces since they were launched March 19, but the regime forces still outmatch those of the opposition "by far," and few members of Gadhafi's military have defected lately.
It had taken more than five days of allied bombardment to destroy government tanks and artillery in the strategic town of Ajdabiya before rebels rushed in and chased Gadhafi's troops 200 miles west in a two-day dash along the coast.
Two days later the rebels have been pushed back to close to where they started.
The Libyan army first ambushed the chaotic caravan of volunteers, supporters and bystanders outside Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert, a maneuver requiring the sort of discipline the rag-tag rebels lack.
The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawwad and Ras Lanouf, a key oil port, fell in quick succession to the lightning government counterstrike.
Rebel spokesman Col. Ahmad Bani said fighting was going on at Brega, the next town east along the narrow coastal strip that has been the theatre of most of the fighting.
A rebel soldier, Col. Abdullah Hadi, said he expected the loyalists to enter Brega by Wednesday night. "I ask NATO for just one aircraft to push them back. All we need is air cover and we could do this. They should be helping us," Hadi said.
NATO planes flew over the zone of the heaviest fighting Wednesday and explosions were heard, but rebels have called for more aggressive action.
Airstrikes have neutralized Gadhafi's air force and pounded his army, but those ground forces remain far better armed, trained and organized than the opposition. The rebels, with few weapons more powerful than rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, can attack targets 3 to 4 miles away, but the loyalists' heavy weapons have a range of 12 miles.
Many rebels had pulled back farther to Ajdabiya and regrouped.
"We thought it better to make a tactical withdrawal until we can think of better tactics and a strategy to face this force," said Bani, adding: "One of the defense points will be Ajdabiya, not the only one."
He appealed for more allied air strikes and heavier weapons. "We are seeking weapons that will be able to destroy the heavy weapons they are using against us such as tanks and artillery."
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Dozens of rebel pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns milled around the western gate of Ajdabiya. Confusion reigned.
Asked what was happening, one rebel said: "We don't know. They say there may be a group of Gadhafi's men coming from the south." That would suggest another big flanking move through the endless desert which pins the coast road to the sea.
Rebel forces lack training, discipline and leadership. There are many different groups of volunteers and decisions are often made only after heated arguments.
When they advance it is often without proper reconnaissance or protection for their flanks. Their courage and enthusiasm notwithstanding, the insurgents tend to flee in disarray whenever Gadhafi forces start sustained firing.
"Whether we advance 50 kilometers, or retreat 50 kilometers ... it's a big country. They will go back the next day," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
Meanwhile, forces loyal to Gadhafi killed 18 civilians in the city of Misrata on Tuesday and the troops are still shelling and fighting skirmishes with rebels, a rebel spokesman said.
But a blockade of Misrata's Mediterranean port by pro-Gadhafi forces has now ended, allowing two ships to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate people wounded in the fighting, the spokesman told Reuters by telephone.
In other developments Wednesday:
- In an hour-long private meeting for House members, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and the intelligence head faced tough questions, from the cost of the operation to the increasing concern about the makeup of the rebels. The top NATO commander has said he's seen "flickers" of al-Qaida and Hezbollah among the rebels, but no evidence of significant numbers. During the meeting, the intelligence chief, James Clapper, compared the rebel forces to a "pick-up basketball team." Members of Congress expressed frustration because administration officials couldn't say when the U.S. operation might end. "The main question I have is going forward, do we arm the rebels, what happens if Gadhafi holds on, what is our next move," said Adam Smith, D-Wash. Said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas: "The administration answered as well as they could, given the ambiguity of the situation."
- Gadhafi's forces have laid land mines in the eastern outskirts of Adjabiya, an area they held from March 17 until Saturday, when airstrikes drove them west, according to Human Rights Watch. The group cited the electricity director for eastern Libya, Abdal Minam al-Shanti, who said two anti-personnel mines detonated when a truck ran over them, but no one was hurt. Al-Shanti said a civil defense team found and disarmed more than 50 mines in what Human Rights Watch described as a heavily traveled area.
- Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa defected upon flying into London. Koussa was one of Gadhafi's key officials and the architect of a dramatic shift in Libya's foreign policy that brought the country back to the international community after years of sanctions.
- Libya has chosen a veteran Nicaraguan diplomat, Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, to represent it at the United Nations, the Nicaraguan government said. D'Escoto is a former U.N. General Assembly president and a former Roman Catholic priest who later served as a foreign minister in Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government.
- The Obama administration estimates U.S. military operations in Libya have cost about $550 million so far and will cost about $40 million a month going forward, a U.S. lawmaker said. "It's about $550 million," said Rep. Norm Dicks, the senior Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee.
'Ultimately step down'
The apparent setbacks to the rebels followed comments by U.S. President Barack Obama that continued military and diplomatic pressure would force Gadhafi out of power.
In an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, Obama predicted Tuesday that continued military and diplomatic pressure would force Gadhafi to "ultimately step down."
Obama refused to rule out providing direct U.S. military assistance to the rebels fighting Gadhafi's government. But he said such assistance was unlikely and that his comments shouldn't be interpreted as signaling wider U.S. intervention in the region.
"Gadhafi's been greatly weakened," Obama said. "He does not have control over most of Libya at this point, and so for us to continue to apply this pressure, I think, will allow us the space and the time to forge the kind of political solution that's necessary."
Reuters, The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.