The U.S. agreed to NATO's request for a 48-hour extension of American participation in coalition airstrikes against targets in Libya and U.S. lawmakers cautioned Sunday the allies need to know more about the rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces before providing them with weapons.
Two weeks into the assault on Gadhafi, Republican lawmakers expressed concern that a stalemate could leave him in control of portions of Libya and with access to stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The U.S. is shifting the combat role to Britain, France and other NATO allies, but American air power is still in demand. Air Force AC-130 gunships and A-10 Thunderbolts and Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers will continue to attack Gadhafi's troops and other sites through Monday evening. These aircraft are among the most precise in the American arsenal.
After Saturday, no U.S. combat aircraft were to fly strike missions over Libya unless NATO officials specifically asked and authorities in Washington gave their approval. NATO assumed full control last week from the U.S.-led international force for all aspects of the operation in Libya as authorized by U.N. resolutions that include an arms embargo, enforcing the no-fly zone, and protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces.
In an emailed statement, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Sunday that "poor weather conditions over the last few days" were the reason the alliance made the request. She would not elaborate. "This is a short-term extension which expires on Monday," she said.
A senior U.S. military official said heavy cloud cover over Libya late last week curtailed allied airstrikes. Gadhafi took advantage of the lull, pushing east into the port cities of Ras Lanouf and Brega, the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military planning. The 48-hour extension is intended to roll back the progress made by Gadhafi's army, the official said.
The rebel leadership called for NATO-led air assault to continue despite 13 rebel fighters being killed by accident in a NATO strike as they tried to take control of the eastern oil town of Brega.
NATO has conducted 363 sorties since taking over command of the Libya operations on March 31, and about 150 were intended as strike missions, but NATO has not confirmed hitting any targets.
Libyan rebels put their best troops in to battle Gadhafi's forces for the eastern oil town of Brega on Sunday.
"There is fighting going on inside Brega, Gadhafi's forces are based inside Brega university, and we're shelling them and advancing them bit by bit," said Col. Juma Abdel-Hamid, as Grad rockets fired off toward government positions.
Libya's civil war is in danger of getting bogged down in a stalemate as neither Gadhafi's troops, tanks and artillery, nor the chaotic rebel force is able to gain the upper hand, despite Western air power effectively aiding the insurgents.
The rebels are, however, attempting to put their house in order, naming a "crisis team" with the former interior minister as the armed forces chief of staff, to try to run parts of Libya it holds and reorganizing their military forces.
Outside Brega, better rebel discipline was already in evidence on Sunday with the less disciplined volunteers, and journalists, kept several miles east of the front. The insurgents have also deployed heavier weapons
The sound of explosions and machinegun fire came from the town, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 15 miles, as warplanes flew over, but it was not clear if the jets had launched air strikes on Gadhafi's positions.
Without the backbone of regular forces, the lightly-armed volunteer caravan has spent days dashing back and forth along the coast road on Brega's outskirts, scrambling away in their pick-ups when Gadhafi's forces fire rockets at their positions.
The enthusiastic volunteers tend to get on well with the rebel army, made up of soldiers who defected to the rebels, but a small scuffle broke out near Brega's eastern gate on Sunday as a soldier berated them for their lack of discipline.
"These revolutionaries go in and fire and that's it. They don't have any tactics, these guys. They cause problems," said the soldier, Mohammed Ali.
The rebels say they now are restructuring their forces to end the pendulum swing of their euphoric advance in the wake of Western air strikes followed by headlong retreat in the face of government artillery.
"We are reorganizing our ranks. We have formed our first brigade. It is entirely formed from ex-military defectors and people who've come back from retirement," Former Air Force Major Jalid al-Libie told Reuters in Benghazi.
Asked about numbers, he said he could not reveal that, but added, "it's quality that matters."
The aim was for the trained force to steel resistance of the many volunteers so the rebel army could hold ground.
"Before the end of the week you will see a different kind of fighting and that will tip the balance," said Libie, a former fighter pilot.
A Reuters correspondent visiting the scene of the air strike saw burned-out vehicles, including an ambulance, by the road near the eastern entrance to Brega. Men prayed at freshly dug graves covered by the rebel red, black and green flag nearby.
Most blamed a Gadhafi spy for drawing the "friendly fire."
But some gave a different account. "The rebels shot up in the air and the alliance came and bombed them. We are the ones who made the mistake," said a fighter who did not give his name.
A rebel spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani, told Reuters the leadership still wanted and needed allied air strikes. "You have to look at the big picture. Mistakes will happen. We are trying to get rid of Gadhafi and there will be casualties, although of course it does not make us happy."
A decision yet to be made by the Obama administration is whether to arm the rebels with the firepower they need to take and hold ground against Gadhafi's forces.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said there may be strains of al-Qaida within the rebel ranks and that the coalition should proceed with caution before arming them.
"We know they're against Moammar Gadhafi remaining in power, but we don't know what they are for," Rogers said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid advocated a "wait and see" approach to giving the opposition forces weapons.
"I think at this stage we really don't know who the leaders of this rebel group are," said Reid, D-Nev.
But Rogers also warned that if there were a stalemate in Libya, a cornered Gadhafi might resort to extreme measures against the opposition forces, such as the use of chemical weapons. Rogers said he has been to Libya and seen Gadhafi's chemical weapons.
"I think you have to worry that he's a terrorist threat," Rogers said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the coalition needs to take the air war to Libya's capital where Gadhafi and his inner circle are located. Striking targets in Tripoli will further fracture Gadhafi's government and push the Libyan leader from power, he said.
"The way to end this war is to have Gadhafi's inner circle to crack," Graham said. "The way to get his inner circle to crack is to go after them directly."
Like Rogers, Graham said he's concerned over the prospect of a stalemate in Libya. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he faulted President Barack Obama for putting the U.S. into a supporting role and shifting the main combat burden to Britain, France and other NATO allies.
"To take the best air force in the world and park it during this fight is outrageous," Graham said. "When we called for a no-fly zone, we didn't mean our planes."
Misery in MisrataWhile fighting in the east risks stalemate, in the west Gadhafi's forces are besieging the city of Misrata, shelling a building that had been used to treat wounded, a resident said, killing one person and wounding more.
Misrata, Libya's third largest city, rose up with other towns against Gadhafi's rule in mid-February, but it is now surrounded by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to protests elsewhere in the west of the country.
Doctors say hundreds have been killed in Misrata despite two weeks of Western airstrikes meant stop the killing of civilians.
A doctor who gave his name as Ramadan told Reuters by telephone from the city that 160 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in fighting in Misrata over the past seven days.
Ramadan, a British-based doctor who said he arrived in Misrata three days ago on a humanitarian mission, had no figure for the total toll since fighting began six weeks ago.
"But every week between 100 or 140 people are reported killed — multiply this by six and our estimates are 600 to 1,000 deaths since the fighting started," he said.
After weeks of shelling and encirclement, Gadhafi's forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels' hold on Misrata. Rebels say they still control the city center and the port, but government troops have pushed into the center.
One Benghazi-based rebel said food supplies were acutely low in Misrata. "There are severe food shortages and we call on humanitarian organizations to help," said the rebel called Sami, who said he was in regular contact with a Misrata resident.
Some supplies are getting through the rebel-held port though, and a Turkish ferry, outfitted as a hospital ship, evacuated 250 wounded along with 100 care workers from Misrata on Sunday, Turkey's state-run Anatolian news agency said.
Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from the city, 130 miles east of Tripoli.
Gadhafi's troops are also mopping up resistance in the mountainous southwest of Tripoli.
Government forces shelled the small town of Yafran, southwest of the capital on Sunday, killing two people, Arabiya television reported, quoting a witness.
They also shelled the city of Zintan, about 100 miles south-west of the capital, a resident said.