WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its allies need to know much more about the rebels in Libya before providing them with advanced weapons to fight Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces, key U.S. lawmakers said Sunday.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said there may be strains of al-Qaida within the rebel ranks and that the NATO-led coalition in the campaign against Gadhafi should proceed with caution before arming them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid advocated a "wait and see" approach to giving the opposition forces more firepower.
"I think at this stage we really don't know who the leaders of this rebel group are," said Reid, D-Nev.
But Rogers also warned that if there were a stalemate in Libya, Gadhafi might resort to extreme measures against the opposition forces, such as the use of chemical weapons. Gadhafi remaining in power is not an option, Rogers said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the coalition needs to take the air war to Libya's capital where Gadhafi and his inner circle are located. Striking targets in Tripoli will further fracture Gadhafi's inner circle and push the Libyan leader from power, he said.
"The way to end this war is to have Gadhafi's inner circle to crack," Graham said. "The way to get his inner circle to crack is to go after them directly."
Like Rogers, Graham said he's concerned over the prospect of a stalemate in Libya. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he faulted President Barack Obama for putting the U.S. into a supporting role and shifting the main combat burden to Britain, France and other NATO allies.
"To take the best air force in the world and park it during this fight is outrageous," Graham said. "When we called for a no-fly zone, we didn't mean our planes."
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the U.S. approved a request from the alliance to extend until Monday its role in flying strike missions over Libya. In an emailed statement, Lungescu said Sunday that "poor weather conditions over the last few days" were the reason for the request." She did not elaborate, saying she couldn't discuss operational details.
"These aircraft will continue to conduct and support alliance air-to-ground missions throughout this weekend," she said.
U.S. participation in strike missions against Libya was to end Sunday unless NATO officials specifically asked for assistance and authorities in Washington gave their approval. NATO assumed full control last week from the U.S.-led international force for all aspects of the operation in Libya as authorized by U.N. resolutions that include an arms embargo, enforcing the no-fly zone, and protecting civilians from Gadhafi's forces.
Allied military operations against Gadhafi's forces began March 19 with missiles and bombs targeting Libya's air defenses, communications networks, and ground forces. Obama has ruled out the use of U.S. ground troops in Libya. But the opposition lacks the proper organization and equipment to push back Gadhafi's army on its own. The rebels scored early success against Gadhafi's forces, but lost most of their gains in recent days.
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said failing to arm the rebels could allow Gadhafi to maintain control over large swaths of Libya.
"We are concerned that regional support will waver if Western forces are perceived as presiding over a military deadlock," McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, wrote Friday in The Wall Street Journal. "We cannot allow Gadhafi to consolidate his grip over part of the country and settle in for the long haul."
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Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in congressional testimony on Thursday that as few as 1,000 among the rebels are former members of Gadhafi's military.
The rest are simply "guys with guns," said James Dubik, a retired Army three-star general who says they need American or NATO advisers and trainers to be effective. "They need help," Dubik wrote in an assessment for the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington.
Rogers appeared Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." Reid and Graham appeared on CBS's "Face The Nation.
Associated Press writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.