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McCain calls for greater help for Libya rebels

Sen. John McCain called Friday for the world to provide greater support to Libya's rebels amid fears of a military stalemate with Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Sen. John McCain called for the world to provide greater support to Libya's rebels amid fears of a military stalemate with Moammar Gadhafi's forces, after the Arizona Republican arrived in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi Friday.

"They are my heroes," McCain said of the rebels as he walked out of a local hotel in Benghazi. He was traveling in an armored Mercedes jeep and had a security detail.

McCain, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, said he planned to meet with the rebel National Transition Council, the de-facto government in the eastern half of the country.

He said at a news conference Friday that all nations should recognize the council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people.

"I would encourage every nation, especially the United States, to recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people," he said.

"They have earned this right and Gadhafi has forfeited it by waging war on his own people," he said.

And he called for increased military support for the rebels, including providing weapons and training as well as giving close air support on the battlefield.

McCain said nations needed to provide the council with "every appropriate means of assistance," including "command and control support, battlefield intelligence, training and weapons."

Several hours after he spoke, a NATO airstrike hit a car park near Gadhafi's compound in the Libyan capital Tripoli early on Saturday morning, a Libyan government spokesman said. Three people were killed in the attack, the spokesman aded.

The visit by McCain was shrouded in secrecy due to heightened security for the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee in a country fiercely divided by the 2-month-old rebellion against Gadhafi.

NBC News correspondent Richard Engel, who is in Benghazi, said in a Twitter message that McCain told him Friday that he saw the danger of a stalemate between the rebels and Gadhafi's forces.

Earlier, Engel said in another Twitter message that Libya was "feeling more like two countries every day." He also reported people in Benghazi were carrying American flags, noting "don't see that often."

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's joint chiefs of staff, addressing U.S. troops during a visit to Baghdad, said U.S. airstrikes had hobbled Gadhafi's forces, but admitted there appeared to be no end in sight to the conflict.

"It's certainly moving toward a stalemate," he said. "At the same time, we've attrited somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of his main ground forces, his ground force capabilities. Those will continue to go away over time."

Drones turn back
Meantime, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Thursday that President Barack Obama has authorized armed Predator drones against forces loyal to Gadhafi.

It is the first time that drones will be used for airstrikes since the United States turned over control of the operation to NATO on April 4.

Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first two Predators were sent to Libya on Thursday but had to turn back because of bad weather.

The rebels have complained that NATO airstrikes since then have largely been ineffective in stopping Gadhafi's forces, particularly in the city of Misrata, the rebels' last major bastion in the West of the country.

Rebels in Misrata, besieged by Gadhafi troops for nearly two months, raised their tricolor flag atop an eight-story building in celebration after driving pro-government snipers out of it and neighboring buildings Thursday.

The building commands a strategic view of the central part of Libya's third-largest city and the key main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, and the snipers had terrorized residents and pinned down rebel fighters.

"Spirits are high but the military situation is still unknown," said one rebel who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation. "The rebels easily entered yesterday, so it was clear that the Gadhafi forces quickly withdrew."

The opposition-aligned Freedom Group of "citizen journalists" posted a video showing the tricolor flag flying and rebel fighters celebrating amid buildings heavily pock-marked by gunfire and missiles.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said late Friday that the Libyan army will pull out of Misrata due to NATO airstrikes and be replaced by armed tribesmen. He did not say when the military would withdraw and under what conditions.

Kaim told journalists that "we will leave it for the tribes around Misrata and the Misrata people to deal with the situation in Misrata."

McCain pressed for intervention
Invoking the humanitarian disasters in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s, McCain pressed for U.S. military intervention in Libya in February, weeks before the U.N. Security Council authorized military action to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone.

When Obama acted with limited congressional consultation, McCain defended the president, saying he couldn't wait for Congress to take even a few days to debate the use of force.

If he had, "there would have been nothing left to save in Benghazi," the rebels' de-facto capital.

But as the U.S. handed operational control over to NATO — and withdrew U.S. combat aircraft — McCain criticized the administration.

"For the United States to withdraw our unique offensive capabilities at this time would send the wrong signal," McCain said.

He said the U.S. must not fail in Libya and said he spoke as someone experienced in a lost conflict, a reference to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

McCain also has pushed for arming the rebels, saying the U.S. and its partners cannot allow Gadhafi to consolidate his hold on one section of the country and create a military deadlock.