Libya's rebels are urging the U.S. to reassert a stronger role in airstrikes on Moammar Gadhafi's forces amid growing calls from some international allies for more aggressive action.
One of the loudest voices calling for a more robust push to help tip the scales is Qatar, the tiny Gulf Arab nation that hosted the first meeting Wednesday of a group set up to guide NATO-led airstrikes and humanitarian missions in Libya.
Its crown prince said it was a "race against time" to give Gadhafi's outgunned opponents the tools to fight.
"It is time to help the Libyan people defend themselves, and to defend the Libyan people," said Sheik Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. His nation helped the rebels sell oil under their control and is one of the few Arab states contributing to the air campaign.
"And what are the rebels except civilians who have taken up arms to defend themselves in a difficult situation and an uneven battle?"
Qatar's appeal reflects a growing push by some countries to shift the focus toward helping the rebels shore up their eastern power base and give them a better fighting chance. But that risks tying the international mission _ set up mainly to protect civilians _ more closely to the rebels' fate.
Concerns about that slippery slope may explain the low-key role played by the United States, already heavily invested in two other regional wars, at Wednesday's talks. While Britain, France and other European nations sent their foreign ministers, Washington dispatched a less senior diplomat, William J. Burns, who did not take part in a press conference after the meeting.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner suggested that the U.S. wasn't preparing a major change in its role.
"We believe NATO is fully capable of carrying out this mission," Toner said. "The U.S. role was clearly defined from the very beginning."
Nevertheless, Pentagon officials disclosed for the first time Wednesday that U.S. fighter jets have continued to strike inside Libya even after the United States turned the mission over to NATO last week.
In Brussels, NATO said it conducted airstrikes Tuesday on an ammunition depot in Sirte on Libya's central coast and destroyed 12 tanks near the western town of Zintan, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Tripoli.
In Doha, rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam urged NATO to step up its air campaign to hit pro-Gadhafi forces in efforts to protect civilians and appealed for a greater role by the U.S., which turned over operations to the military bloc last month. Shammam's comments echoed calls by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and others after government forces shelled the rebel-held city of Misrata in western Libya.
"When the Americans were involved, the mission was very active and it was more leaning toward protecting the civilians," said Shammam.
In Paris for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Wednesday that Britain and France will leave "no stone unturned" as they look for ways to help the rebels topple Gadhafi.
Cameron said the talks would focus on how they can further help the opposition and seek ways to halt Gadhafi's assault against civilians in places like Misrata.
"It is appalling what Gadhafi is doing in Misrata _ he is murdering his own citizens, including children," he said. "The orders come directly from him. But NATO has taken steps, we have destroyed dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles around Misrata."
Shammam, the rebel spokesman, said the anti-Gadhafi forces will not bend on their demands that any peace proposal require Gadhafi and his inner circle to leave the country. The rebels' conditions for Gadhafi's ouster effectively killed a cease-fire bid by Africa's main political bloc this week.
While the Doha forum Wednesday produced no policy breakthrough, delegates vowed to work toward setting up a financial mechanism that would not violate sanctions but help the rebels' transitional government pay salaries and cover other day-to-day needs. Envoys said the system could draw on oil revenues from rebel-held areas and frozen Libyan assets previously under Gadhafi's control.
In a final communique, delegates said they welcomed progress made to support and protect the Libyan people.
The statement said participants agreed to continue to support the opposition, including with "material support," and urged all parties to grant safe access to humanitarian agencies.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private, said different countries are taking different views of what "material support" entails.
In London, Cameron's office issued a statement saying Britain has decided to supply 1,000 sets of body armor from surplus British military supplies to Libya's opposition _ on top of 100 satellite phones it has already sent.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini made the case that the recent U.N. resolutions on Libya do not prohibit providing arms to rebels. He went further to say it was "morally justified" to aid the opposition, claiming Gadhafi's forces have changed tactics and moved tanks into civilian areas to try foil NATO airstrikes.
"Either we make it possible for these people to defend themselves or we withdraw from our obligation to support defending the population of Libya," said Frattini, whose nation will host the next Contact Group meeting.
Earlier, Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari said allies may consider providing weapons to the rebels.
"The discussion of arms is certainly on the table," he said. "We are not talking about offensive arms. ... Every country will decide. It is a political decision."
Notably absent from the Doha meeting was Gadhafi's former foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, who defected to Britain last month.
He had flown to Doha the day before but was "not invited" to the meeting, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. Rebel officials say that despite his defection he is seen as too close to the Gadhafi regime and has no role in their movement.
The host for the first meeting of the Libyan Contact Group _ the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar _ is one of the leading backers of the rebels. But Qatar has sided with the rulers in its own Gulf neighborhood by supporting the Saudi-led force aiding Bahrain's embattled monarchy.
Ben Hubbard in Benghazi, Libya, Jamey Keaten in Paris, Bradley Klapper in Washington, Maggie Michael and Diaa Hadid in Cairo, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.