U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met for a second time Tuesday with a leader of the political opposition trying to oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi but said the United States has made no decision about whether to arm the Libyan rebels now gaining ground with the help of U.S.-led air strikes.
The U.S. won't rule out a political settlement in Libya that would include a deal for Gadhafi to leave the country, Clinton said. She said it appears Gadhafi has made no decisions yet about his future, but she noted that several scenarios are "in play" as nations with ties to Gadhafi and a newly named U.N. envoy look for a way out.
Clinton told an international conference on Libya's future that countries must work together so that the North African country "belongs not to a dictator, but to its people," promising to ratchet up the pressure on the Libyan government in the hope of convincing Gadhafi's remaining loyalists to abandon the regime.
Addressing officials from more than three dozen countries, Clinton told the gathering in London that military means alone won't force Gadhafi out after 42 years in power, and that further sanctions and diplomatic pressure ought to be applied. Her comments come at a key turning point in the international military action in Libya, as the United States steps back from its lead role and transfers authority for the mission to NATO.
"All of us must continue to increase the pressure on and deepen the isolation of the Gadhafi regime through other means as well," she said. "All of us seated around this table must speak with one voice in support of a transition that leads to a brighter future for Libya."
Clinton spoke after meeting on the sidelines with Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan opposition fighting Gadhafi. The two discussed political next steps, as they did two weeks ago during an initial meeting in Paris, aides said.
A senior U.S. official said Washington will soon send an envoy to Libya to deepen relations with leaders of the rebels seeking to overthrow Gadhafi.
Chris Stevens, who was until recently the deputy chief of mission at the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, will make the trip in the coming days. The move doesn't constitute formal recognition of the opposition, stressed the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Clinton said arming the rebels would be legal, although there has been international debate on that point, and that the possibility is still under discussion.
The U.S. military says it does not coordinate directly with the rebels seeking Gadhafi's overthrow, although rebel forces benefit from the air campaign. The U.N. mandate to protect civilians in Libya does not extend to Gadhafi's overthrow, although the United States and other nations prosecuting the air campaign would like to see him go.
Clinton chose her words carefully so as not to appear to fully choose sides in what might become a civil war. The United States is still getting to know the Libyan opposition, Clinton said, and its leaders will be under scrutiny. She did not directly address whether rebel forces may have some links to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups. A top U.S. military commander said Tuesday there is some evidence of that.
"We don't know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know," Clinton said. "We're picking up information."
The London gathering came a day after President Barack Obama vigorously defended the U.S.-led campaign against Gadhafi's troops in Libya, declaring that action was necessary to prevent a slaughter of civilians. A massacre would have stained the world's conscience and "been a betrayal of who we are" as Americans, Obama said.
Yet the president ruled out targeting Gadhafi, warning that trying to oust him militarily would be a mistake as costly as the war in Iraq, and said he would keep his pledge to get the U.S. out of the military lead fast.