WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may try to wait out a no-fly zone and military assault that has damaged his armed forces, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday in an interview with CNN.
"Gaddafi may try to hunker down and wait it out even in the face of the no-fly zone, even though his forces have been degraded," Obama said.
The U.S. president's comments acknowledged the longtime Libyan leader's staying power and the limits of a U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya that the United States and European countries are enforcing, with some Arab support.
U.S. officials have made clear Gaddafi's ouster would be welcome but was not the goal of the air strikes. Obama said the no-fly zone was meant to ensure "the people of Libya aren't assaulted by their own military."
Obama, in El Salvador on the last leg of a Latin America trip, said there were other ways the international community could try to oust Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for 41 years.
"Keep in mind we don't just have military tools at our disposal in terms of accomplishing Gaddafi's leaving," he said. "We've put in place strong international sanctions. We've frozen his assets. We will continue to apply a whole range of pressure on him."
Asked what he would do to help the Libyan rebels, Obama said he was discussing possible measures with U.S. partners in the Libya coalition.
"I think - our hope is - that the first thing that can happen once we've cleared the space is that the rebels are able to start discussing how they organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people and create a legitimate government," he told CNN.
(Reporting by Bill Trott; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Peter Cooney)