WASHINGTON A stalemate appears to be emerging in Libya between rebels and forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi but the United States should not arm the rebels without knowing more about them, a top U.S. general said on Thursday.
The comments at a Senate hearing by General Carter Ham, who led the coalition air campaign before handing over command to NATO, is likely to further stoke debate in the United States about next steps in Libya.
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending in ground forces to Libya and top administration officials have stressed the limits of U.S. involvement in what could become a protracted civil war.
Senator John McCain, a Republican who is pushing for greater U.S. involvement, grilled Ham about the risks of Gaddafi staying in power in the event of a stalemate.
Asked by McCain whether he believed the situation on the ground could be described as a stalemate, or at least an emerging stalemate, Ham said: "I would agree with that at present on the ground."
Ham, head of the U.S. military's Africa Command, later acknowledged that the likelihood of a stalemate was higher now than before the United States passed control of the air campaign to NATO on March 31.
"So right now we are facing the prospect of a stalemate, which then means Gaddafi remains in power," McCain said.
"Which then means that we will then have a very, very serious situation with Mr. Gaddafi in the future if he remains in power, particularly given his past record," McCain said.
The head of Libya's rebels took the extraordinary step of condemning NATO this week for its slow chain of command in ordering air strikes to protect civilians.
A NATO air strike on Thursday killed at least five rebels near the Libyan port of Brega. It was the second time in less than a week that rebels had blamed NATO for bombing their comrades by mistake.
Thirteen died in an air strike not far from the same spot on Saturday.
Asked whether he thought the United States should arm the rebels, Ham said: "Not without a better understanding of who the opposition force is."
"My recommendation would be that we should know more about who they are before we make any determination to arm them," Ham said, reflecting concerns about the risk of extremist elements within the rebels' ranks.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)