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DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar became the first Arab country on Monday to recognize Libya's rebels as the people's legitimate representative, in a move that may presage similar moves from other Gulf states.
Word of the decision came a day after a senior Libyan rebel official said Qatar had agreed to market crude oil produced from eastern fields no longer under the control of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"This recognition comes from a conviction that the council has become, practically, a representative of Libya and its brotherly people," the Qatari Foreign Ministry said in a diplomatic note on Monday.
An unnamed official cited by Qatar's state news agency said the rebel council included representatives of different regions and had acceptance among the Libyan people.
Energy-rich Qatar was the first Arab country to join patrols in the U.N.-backed no-fly zone over Libya last Friday -- a move that helped the United States to argue that the Western-led air strikes have Arab support.
"There was pressure exerted by the Americans, who are clearly looking for Arab participants," said a source in Doha familiar with Qatari diplomacy. "The four planes (supplied by Qatar) are of no importance, just a gesture."
But analysts say Qatar, keen to raise its international profile and show regional leadership, also sees the move as in its own interests and those of its Gulf neighbors.
An OPEC source said Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani had taken the initiative to strike an oil deal with rebels and recognize their council.
"The Gulf Arabs also hate Gaddafi," said Robert Jordan, partner at Baker Botts, a legal firm specializing in international energy.
"None will criticize Qatar for being ahead of the curve. It could blow up in their face if the (rebel) Council turns extremist, but they have likely considered who they are."
David Roberts, Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha, said Libya -- unlike Syria -- gave Qatar the chance to make a bold contribution.
"In Libya it is possible for the emir to do something," he said. "He is no fool and politics is the art of the possible, not the impossible."
Even among Western countries, France is the only one to have recognized the rebel council as the representative of Libya.
But some Gulf states looked set to follow Qatar's lead. Kuwait's foreign minister said officials had met a rebel council representative and hinted formal recognition might follow.
"This is considered a practical recognition," Sheikh Mohammad al-Sabah told reporters. "The matter requires procedures of course, which are subject to international law."
The head of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a loose economic and political bloc, said the "Libyan system has lost its legitimacy" and backed Qatar's move.
GCC Secretary General Abdulrahman al-Attiyah, a Qatari, said Qatar's position was "in line with the decisions of the GCC".
Apart from Qatar, the GCC comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates has offered humanitarian aid to Libya and sent 12 aircraft for patrols.
Before the crisis, Libya produced 1.6 million barrels of oil per day, almost 2 percent of world output. Most of it is in the east where the rebels are stronger, but sanctions and lack of a marketing operation have stopped the rebels selling it abroad.
"We contacted the oil company of Qatar and thankfully they agreed to take all the oil that we wish to export and market this oil for us," said Ali Tarhouni, a rebel official in charge of economic, financial and oil matters. (Additional reporting by Eman Goma in Kuwait, Jason Benham in Riyadh, and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Writing by Amran Abocar and Kevin Liffey)