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updated 3/30/2011 3:14:48 PM ET 2011-03-30T19:14:48

Congressional Republicans and Democrats pressed senior Obama administration officials on Wednesday about the duration of the Libya operation and who the rebels are opposing Col. Moammar Gadhafi as the war raged on for a second week with no end in sight.

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As Gadhafi loyalists forced the overmatched opposition to retreat from a crucial oil town, the heads of the Pentagon and State Department faced calls to outline the U.S. role at closed-door, back-to-back briefings for all members of the House and Senate.

The sessions came 12 days after enforcement of the no-fly zone began, a sore point with some lawmakers who wanted greater consultation.

Summing up the president's speech in three words

"The president has an obligation to clearly explain to Congress and the American people what his administration's objectives are for our operations in Libya," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "He fulfilled this obligation in part on Monday night."

Video: Obama: We've put Gadhafi 'back on his heels' (on this page)

Obama, in his address to the nation, defended his decision to deploy military forces to prevent a slaughter of Libyan civilians. But with Gadhafi holding firm despite the military onslaught and NATO assuming command of the operation, lawmakers have numerous questions about U.S. involvement and how long the U.S. will be involved.

"Where do we go from here?" said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel. He cited various possible scenarios, from Gadhafi's ouster to a stalemate.

Questions about whether to arm rebels
Amid reports of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups infiltrating the rebels, questions about arming the rebels loom large.

In an interview Tuesday, Obama did not rule out providing weapons to the opposition. Britain and the United States argue that the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions would allow foreign countries to arm the rebels. But NATO, which is taking charge, disagrees and points out that an arms embargo exists.

Video: Clinton, Gates, Lugar, roundtable

Asked Smith, "Who are we dealing with?"

Obama, in an interview with CBS News, said most of the opposition leaders are professionals such as lawyers and doctors, but "that doesn't mean that all the people — among all the people who opposed Gadhafi — there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests."

Video: Bachmann slams Obama’s Libya strategy (on this page)

Any congressional move to thwart Obama has been essentially on hold as lawmakers await the briefing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

Freshman Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., attracted a handful of co-sponsors for his bill introduced this week that would end the U.S. role in the Libyan operation unless Obama gets congressional authorization. Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is seeking congressional support for his effort to cut off funds for the operation.

The top NATO commander said the U.S. military role will be scaled back in the near term.

"We today in NATO took over the mission and we are reducing the U.S. component of it measurably, and I think you'll see our allies increasingly engaged," U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis told the House Armed Services Committee.

Specifically, Stavridis said that "the strike part of this and the aviation combat air patrol will be filled largely by the allies and the United States will shift to enablers, things like intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, refueling, ... combat search and rescue."

Serious reservations
Still, members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed serious reservations about the future U.S. role in Libya.

Video: Obama won’t rule out arming Libyan rebels (on this page)

"It is a mission that I'm concerned as to whether or not its goals are clear. And also I'm a little concerned and believe it's unclear as to who we are supporting in this conflict," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.

Said freshman Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., who did four Army combat tours in Iraq: "I've opposed the actions in Libya. I think we have so much on the plate right now that we need to do to bring to closure with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan."

A new Associated Press-GfK poll found the country split on U.S. involvement in military actions in Libya, with 48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving.

About three-quarters say it's somewhat likely that U.S. forces will be involved in Libya for the long term. Fifty-five percent say they would favor the United States increasing its military action to remove Gadhafi from power, although only 13 percent favor U.S. ground troops, a step Obama has said he would not take.

The poll was conducted in the days leading up to the president's speech.

Of major concern to lawmakers wrestling with spending cuts and funds for two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of the Libyan operation. On Tuesday, the Pentagon put the price tag for the war thus far at $550 million.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama: We've put Gadhafi 'back on his heels'

  1. Closed captioning of: Obama: We've put Gadhafi 'back on his heels'

    >>> good evening, a few hours ago here in new york, president obama sat down to talk with us about the dangerous situation in libya and that entire region of the world. we asked him about the speech to the nation he delivered last night, the dangers of u.s. military involvement while already fighting two other wars and the precedent this may set in other nations. and the fact that this may not go quite as the u.s. and nato have planned. notably as you're about to hear, the president left open the possibility of arming the rebels who are in the fight against gadhafi in libya . here now a portion of our conversation with the president at this time of high stakes overseas. the moment your speech ended last night, the associated press put out an item that read, president obama 's speech was about defending the first war launched on his watch. how does it end?

    >> well, first of all, i think it's important to note that we've had two wars on my watch. one which we've wound down and we do not have combat operations in iraq any more. afghanistan is still a tough fight. that weighs heavily on me in making these decisions. but what was clear to me, we had a unique circumstance to save a lot of lives in this libyan situation. and that we had an international mandate to do it, and an international coalition that was prepared to share the burdens. what we've also done is put gadhafi back on his heels. our expectation is, as we continue to apply military pressure that gadhafi will ultimately stepdown.

    >> what if it doesn't work? what if the rebels find themselves bogged down, this becomes protracted?

    >> well, keep in mind that what we've already done is transition, so this is now a nato and international mission. our role is to provide support, intelligence, jamming capabilities, refuelling capabilities, and so we have been able to spread the burdens of maintaining a no fly zone and protecting civilian populations and we can do that for quite some time, precisely because we built a strong coalition to make it happen. gadhafi 's been greatly weakened, he does not have control over most of libya at this point.

    >> how do you not offer the rebels direct assistance of some sort?

    >> we will be providing them direct assistance --

    >> military?

    >> secretary clinton was in london for a conference today, at which multiple countries pledged to provide assistance. most of the assistance is going to be nonlethal assistance. humanitarian aide. they may need communications equipment, they may need medical supplies. potentially transportation.

    >> with due respect, mr. president, watching the reporting of our two correspondents in libya , what it appears the rebels need is military equipment . some of their equipment dates back to world war ii . are you ruling out u.s. military hardware assistance?

    >> i'm not ruling it out, but i'm also not ruling it in. we're still making an assessment, partly about what gadhafi 's forces are going to be doing. keep in mind we've been at this now for nine days. and the degree to which we've degraded gadhafi 's forces in those nine days has been significant. operations to protect civilians continue to take out gadhafi 's forces, tanks, artillery on the ground. and that will continue for some time. one of the questions that we want to answer is, do we start getting to a stage where gadhafi 's forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups? but we're not taking anything off the table at this point. our primary military goal is to protect civilian populations, and to set up the no fly zone. our primary strategic goal is for gadhafi to step down so the libyan people have a decent chance to live life.

    >> in a few weeks -- what do you do?

    >> i think it's important not to take this particular situation and then try to protect sort of obama doctrine that we're going to apply in a cookie cutter fashion across the board. each country in this region is different. our principles remain the same. we want to make sure that governments are not attacking their own citizens. we believe in core fundamental human rights like freedom of speech and freedom of assembly . we'll use all our tools to try to accomplish that. but libya was a unique situation where a limited military intervention , that had a strong international mandate and strong international participation could make the difference life or death difference for a lot of people. and in that situation it made sense. that does not mean that somehow we are going to go around trying to use military force to impose or apply certain forms of government.

    >> so when people hear words like values and interests and your phrase, the flow of commerce, which some people couldn't help but substitute oil, they shouldn't think there is any blanket policy . this may be an ad-hoc business if this arab spring turns into arab summer and we keep at this watching countries change?

    >> what is absolutely true, is that when you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you're going to get yourself into trouble. and i take the application of military force very seriously. because even in a situation like libya , there's still risks involved. you saw we had a plane malfunction. thank goodness we were able to retrieve those pilots, but it's conceivable that they could have been lost. and so in each of these situations, the application of force is something that for my perspective, you preserve and are very careful to use. and there are going to be some people who get dprus trafrustrated by that. why can't we fix this right away. why can't we impose our will. we have some experience here in trying to impose our will in places like iraq, and i think the american people understand the cost of that.

    >> i asked the president about all the other countries where uprisings have started like bahrain and yemen and others, and again, he called libya a unique case requiring military action . can you see our entire interview online on our website nightly.msn nightly.msnbc.com.

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