A Libyan child walks with a Libyan pre-Gadhafi flag during an evening demonstration in Benghazi, Libya, Wednesday, March 30, 2011.
WASHINGTON (AP) — As the United States debates its future participation in the Libyan conflict, Defense officials slammed the brakes Thursday on any major American role aiding opposition groups and insisted that the U.S. should not be the one to arm the anti-Gadhafi opposition force.
Even as the White House says arming the rebels seeking to oust leader Moammar Gadhafi is still under consideration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm.
Mike Mullen, the senior uniformed officer in the military, said the U.S. still knows little about the opposition force and some other nation should do the training and equipping.
"My view would be, if there is going to be that kind of assistance to the opposition, there are plenty of sources for it other than the United States," Gates told the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee.
Under withering congressional probing and criticism that the mission is expensive and ill-defined, Gates and Mullen sketched out a largely limited role for the U.S. military going forward.
And, while Gates defended U.S. intervention in Libya, reminding lawmakers that Gadhafi has been a persistent and dangerous enemy, he also acknowledged that efforts to force the Libyan strongman out may not work.
"You could have a situation where you achieve the military goal and not achieve the political goal" of regime change, Gates said.
Asked about the terror threat, Gates questioned al-Qaida's ability to capitalize on the unrest rocking the Middle East. In the long run, he said, al-Qaida "is a loser in this revolution that is taking place."
Amid reports that the CIA has small teams working with the rebels in Libya, Gates insisted there will be no U.S. military boots on the ground "as long as I am in this job."
The United States turned over control of the military operation to NATO on Thursday, just hours before Gates and Mullen told Congress that future U.S. participation will be limited and will not involve a major role in airstrikes as time goes on.
They were unable, however, to answer major questions from clearly agitated lawmakers about the length of the operation and how it will play out if Gadhafi does not relinquish power.
The U.S. goals are unclear and officials do not know who the rebels are, said Republican Rep. Mike Turner, who said if it came to a vote he would not support U.S. involvement in the operation.
He and others repeatedly complained that Congress has not been consulted on the Libya operation, and chafed that the legislative branch is not willing to be a backseat driver.
The defense leaders struggled to avoid being dragged into the increasingly bitter political conflict between Congress and the White House over authorization for the military operation.
In fact, Obama gathered congressional leaders to the White House and by telephone the day before the mission began to inform them of his decision. The Senate also unanimously approved a resolution March 1 backing the no-fly zone.
Gates defended the intervention, noting that, "We may not know much about the opposition or the rebels, but we know a great deal about Gadhafi."
He said concrete barriers first appeared in Washington in 1983 after the U.S. got reports indicating that Gadhafi wanted to kill President Ronald Reagan. He added, "This guy has been a huge problem for the United States for a long time."
Gates and Mullen said Gadhafi's military has been degraded by as much as 25 percent, but Mullen noted that regime forces still outnumber the rebels by about 10-to-1.
Meanwhile, they said the opposition groups are fractured and operating independently city by city, and just 1,000 of the rebels are militarily trained.
Their comments came as Gadhafi's forces struck forcefully back at the rebels this week, recapturing lost ground and triggering pleas for help from the battered and failing opposition forces.
Gates said that he believes political and economic pressures eventually will drive Gadhafi from power, but the military operation will help force him to make those choices by degrading his defense capabilities.
Separately, the State Department said the U.S. was not involved in the defection of Gadhafi's top diplomat, Moussa Koussa, although a U.S. diplomat had talked with Koussa.
"He's obviously been a part of the Gadhafi regime for many, many years," State Department Mark Toner said. "I obviously don't want to talk about what conversations we may be having with him and what kind of intelligence we may be able to gather from him, but he certainly has a wealth of information to share, should he decide to."