WASHINGTON Muammar Gaddafi has consolidated his position in central and western Libya enough to maintain an indefinite standoff with rebels trying to end his four-decade rule, U.S. and European officials say.
"Gaddafi's people are feeling quite confident," said a European security official who closely follows Libyan events.
A "de facto partition for a long time to come" is the likely outcome, the official said, because of Gaddafi's improving position and the weakness of the ill-equipped and largely untrained opposition forces.
Growing pessimism about the rebels' ability to challenge Gaddafi's control of a large section of the country has fueled calls for greater support of the opposition from the United States and its allies.
President Barack Obama continues to oppose sending U.S. soldiers to Libya but supports British and French moves to deploy small military contingents to advise the rebels, the White House said on Wednesday.
The State Department said it was recommending Obama approve $25 million in medical supplies, radios, body armor, halal ready-to-eat meals and other U.S. aid for the rebels that would not include weapons.
Despite NATO air strikes and moves to bolster anti-Gaddafi forces, U.S. and European intelligence agencies assess that the Libyan leader has solidified his control of Tripoli and most of western Libya.
The officials say Gaddafi's forces have now succeeded in establishing a stalemate against rebel forces who at one point appeared to control Misrata, Libya's third-largest city.
A rebel spokesman in Misrata told Reuters on Wednesday that opposition forces were fighting pro-Gaddafi troops for control of a main road in the besieged city.
The rebels "are now controlling 50 percent of the street. The other 50 percent is controlled by Gaddafi soldiers and snipers," the spokesman said. Ships have been docking in Misrata to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate refugees.
BENGHAZI UNDER THREAT
Some U.S. and European national security officials say Gaddafi's forces soon will have regrouped enough to consider a new move against Benghazi, the opposition stronghold in eastern Libya where NATO countries and Qatar have begun to provide aid to the rebels.
"No one can predict what one of the world's most unpredictable dictators might do," one U.S. official said.
"Part of Gaddafi's strategy might be to consolidate his power in Tripoli and the western parts of Libya," the official said. "At that point, he would be in control of most of Libya, and then he could decide at some point how aggressive he wants to be in the east, in places like Benghazi."
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA Middle East expert who has advised the Obama administration, said an unresolved conflict may pose unacceptable risks to Washington and its allies.
"A stalemate with de facto partition means an open wound on the Mediterranean which will be exploited by extremism," he said. "U.S. and European leaders should not let this happen."
If this scenario were to unfold, Riedel said he saw few alternatives to a new U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of ground forces against Gaddafi.
"Gaddafi's forces are not that formidable. A professional NATO composite force should prevail quickly, then transition to a U.N. stabilization force with Muslim contingents," Riedel said, citing Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey as possible contributors of peacekeepers.
This was not likely to happen without U.S. support, he said, "but we don't need to be the biggest part."
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Rabat and Jeff Mason and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Deborah Charles)