WASHINGTON Libyan rebels have lost momentum and appear unlikely to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi from power, U.S. intelligence agencies said Thursday as the United States backed further away from military action.
The top U.S. spy chief said better-equipped forces loyal to Gaddafi were likely to prevail in the long run against the rebels, who include enthusiastic but ill-trained civilians and dissident military units fighting to end his 41-year rule.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper said without a decisive victory by either side it was possible the North African oil-producing country could break into two or more semi-autonomous states, with Gaddafi retaining control of the capital Tripoli and its environs and the rebels holding on to the eastern city of Benghazi and surrounding areas.
"We believe that Gaddafi is in this for the long haul," he told a U.S. Senate hearing. "He appears to be hunkering down for the duration."
As Clapper delivered his gloomy assessment, NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels shied away from direct military action while agreeing to move warships closer to Libya and continuing to plan for all options.
Clapper, who oversees all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gaddafi's forces were better equipped and, over the longer term, "the regime will prevail."
His assessment will likely lead to louder calls from some U.S. lawmakers for President Barack Obama to take swift military action to help the rebels force Gaddafi from power.
Even though prominent politicians like Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain have pressed for a "no-fly" zone over Libya and other military steps, there is no consensus on Capitol Hill on what to do.
If Gaddafi does survive and hold on to Tripoli, that could hurt Obama politically. The president would face accusations from Republicans that he allowed a dictator to stay in power and signaled to other autocrats in the region that using force to crush dissent does not carry consequences.
U.S. national security officials have told Reuters the Obama administration is deeply resistant to any military involvement in Libya, including arming the rebels.
It fears becoming entangled in a third Middle East war and giving al Qaeda a propaganda coup, the officials say, and it is confident Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are in a position to give the rebels the weapons they need.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has called for a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize any intervention, told lawmakers that unilateral U.S. moves in Libya could have unforeseeable consequences.
She echoed Defense Secretary Robert Gates in warning of the potential limits of a no-fly zone.
"We had a no-fly zone over Iraq. It did not prevent Saddam Hussein from slaughtering people on the ground and it did not get him out of office," Clinton said.
Clapper said Gaddafi has about 80 operational aircraft -- a mix of helicopters, transport aircraft and fighter jets. The warplanes were struggling to "shoot straight" because they were relying on visual, rather than computer, targeting and had not caused "very many casualties," he said.
Despite the caution in Washington, at NATO and at the United Nations, analysts say the United States and its allies may be forced to intervene if attacks by Gaddafi's forces result in heavy civilian casualties.
Recent successes appear to have emboldened Gaddafi, with his most prominent son telling Reuters that loyalists were preparing a full-scale offensive.
"It's time for action," Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said. "The Libyan people, we will never ever welcome NATO, we will never ever welcome Americans here. Libya is not a piece of cake."
The rebels, although relatively well armed, are fragmented and lack the firepower and discipline of Gaddafi's forces.
"Gaddafi intentionally designed the military so that those select units loyal to him are the most luxuriously equipped and the best-trained and that is having a telling effect with the rebels," Clapper said.
Testifying at the same hearing, the head of U.S. military intelligence, Lieutenant-General Ronald Burgess, said Gaddafi "seems to have staying power, unless some other dynamic changes at this time."
"Initially the momentum was with the other side. Now it is starting to shift," Burgess said. "We have now reached a state of equilibrium where the initiative may actually be on the regime side."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Paul Eckert, Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria; Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by John O'Callaghan)