WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Too little is known about Libya’s rebels and they remain too fragmented for the United States to get seriously involved in organizing or training them, let alone arming them, U.S. and European officials say.
U.S. and allied intelligence agencies believe NATO’s no-fly zone and air strikes will be effective in stopping Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from killing civilians and dislodging rebels from strongholds like Benghazi, the officials say.
But the more the intelligence agencies learn about rebel forces, the more they appear to be hopelessly disorganized and incapable of coalescing in the foreseeable future.
U.S. government experts believe the state of the opposition is so grave that it could take years to organize, arm and train them into a fighting force strong enough to drive Gaddafi from power and set up a working government.
The realistic outlook, U.S. and European officials said, is for an indefinite stalemate between the rebels -- supported by NATO air power -- and Gaddafi’s forces.
“At this point neither side is able to defeat the other and neither appears willing to compromise,” said one U.S. official who follows the Libyan conflict closely.
“The opposition needs time to do what they need to do -- forming a government, bringing together key opposition figures, getting on the same page and building a new generation of leaders,” the official said.
There is no sign the CIA or any other U.S. agency is organizing arms supplies for the rebels. But U.S. officials say privately that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are willing to provide weapons and other support to Gaddafi’s foes.
There are “indications” that Qatar has begun to supply some easy-to-use weapons, including shoulder-fired anti-tank rockets, to the opposition, a U.S. official said on Thursday. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday.
Pentagon officials say NATO air strikes, combined with enforcement of an arms embargo, will degrade Gaddafi’s fighting ability. The hope is this may create cracks in his regime and open the way for a political solution to the crisis.
One Western official compared the no-fly zone to a greenhouse that hopefully will allow for the gradual growth of a national opposition movement in Libya that draws together the disparate rebel factions.
Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed a secret order -- a “covert action finding” -- authorizing the CIA to consider a range of operations to support Gaddafi’s opponents.
But the order requires the CIA to seek extra “permissions” from the White House before specific measures such as providing training, money or weapons.
CIA operatives on the ground are aggressively collecting information on the rebels, their structure, leadership and military capabilities, U.S. officials said.
But analysts believe the rebels are in dire shape and that there is no easy way to transform them into a coherent military or political force, three U.S. officials said.
Other U.S. officials said the rebels have no sense of a unifying identity or any critical mass beyond Benghazi, lacking an effective structure that would be a prerequisite for providing training, money or sophisticated weapons.
Washington also has been reluctant to side with the rebels due to concerns that Islamic extremists might be among them, although there is debate here about the extent of the militant involvement in the Libyan uprising.
The head of U.S. Africa Command said it was the stated intent of al Qaeda’s affiliate in the area, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to aid Libya’s opposition.
“We would need, I think, necessarily to be careful about providing lethal means to a group unless we are assured that those U.S.-provided weapons would not fall into the hands of extremist organizations,” General Carter Ham said.
A Western intelligence official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said one concern was that elements of the Al-Magharba tribe in the Ras Lanuf region of Libya may include radical Islamists.
U.S. and European counter-terrorism officials said there was intelligence suggesting that people aligned with anti-Gaddafi forces once were involved with militant groups that sent fighters to Afghanistan and Iraq.
But there was little evidence those people are playing a leadership role or are a distinct presence in the Libyan rebel movement, they said.
Some high-profile members of Congress, including senior members of the intelligence committees in both chambers, have publicly expressed reservations about sending any weapons to the opposition until more is known about them.
At the Pentagon, officials said there were discussions about providing non-lethal U.S. support to the rebels such as personnel protection vehicles and medical supplies.
But U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have said if the rebels are going to be armed and trained, other countries should do it.
French officials have privately urged NATO allies to figure out some way to arm the opposition.
But the British government, which has aligned itself with French President Nicholas Sarkozy in urging other NATO members to take on a greater burden in air operations, has been cautious in public about arming the anti-Gaddafi forces.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain was giving “non-lethal support to the rebels, the opposition” -- including telecommunications equipment but “we’re not giving them arms.”
Hague said Britain believes U.N. resolutions “allow in certain limited circumstances defensive weapons to be given but the United Kingdom is not engaged in that.”
“Other countries will interpret the resolution in their own way,” he added.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by John O'Callaghan and David Storey