By Ross Colvin
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. spy chief said Thursday that better-equipped forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were likely to prevail in the long run against rebels fighting to end his 41-year rule.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper gave his assessment as the United States and its NATO allies debated in Brussels over how to support Libyan opposition groups who have suffered a series of military setbacks.
Clapper, who oversees all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, told U.S. lawmakers the rebels, who include civilians and dissident military units, were in for a "tough roll."
He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gaddafi's forces were better equipped and had more logistical resources, and "over longer-term, that the regime will prevail."
Military analysts say the rebels, although relatively well armed, cannot match the firepower of Gaddafi's forces and lack the training to use the weapons they have seized from weapons depots. They are also disorganized and fragmented, with little real leadership.
"Gaddafi intentionally designed the military so that those select units loyal to him are the most luxuriously equipped and (are) the best-trained and that is having a telling effect with the rebels," Clapper said.
"We believe that Gaddafi is in this for the long haul," he said. "He appears to be hunkering down for the duration."
Libyan tanks fired on rebel positions around the oil port of Ras Lanuf and warplanes hit another oil hub farther east on Thursday as Gaddafi's forces carried counter-attacks deeper into the insurgent heartland.
Clapper's warning that Gaddafi may prevail is likely to increase political pressure on President Barack Obama in Washington to do more to help the rebels force the Libyan leader from power.
The U.S. president has called on Gaddafi to step down but he has been wary of entangling the United States in a new war in the Muslim world. The United States still has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and 50,000 in Iraq.
Prominent lawmakers including Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Senator John McCain have been pressing the administration to impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya to ground Gaddafi's warplanes and explore other military options, such as bombing runways to stop aircraft taking off.
U.S. COOL ON NO-FLY ZONE
The Obama administration has been cool to a no-fly zone, cautioning that it would be difficult to implement and would likely not stop Gaddafi from using low-flying attack helicopters and ground troops. They also stress that any such intervention should have international backing.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Thursday that any unilateral U.S. action on Libya could have "unforeseeable consequences."
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said any NATO military action would require a demonstrable need, a clear mandate and support in the region.
McCain questioned Clapper at the Senate hearing about the logistics of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
The spy chief said Libya had the second-largest air defense system in the Middle East, with about 31 surface-to-air missile sites and a large number of portable surface-to-air missiles. There were concerns that the latter could fall into the wrong hands, he said.
Clapper said Gaddafi had about 80 operational aircraft -- a mix of helicopters, transport aircraft and fighter jets.
The warplanes had been involved in the fighting but had been struggling to "shoot straight" because they were relying on visual, rather than computer, targeting. The air strikes had not caused "very many casualties," he said.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Paul Eckert and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Doina Chiacu)