U.S. Says Gadhafi Might Flee Tripoli

New U.S. intelligence shows Col. Moammar Gadhafi is "seriously considering" fleeing Tripoli for a more secure location outside the capital, according to U.S. officials, raising the prospect that the Libyan leader's hold on power is increasingly fragile.

The intelligence depicts a Libyan leader who "doesn't feel safe anymore" in Tripoli because of stepped-up strikes by North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft and by battlefield gains by rebel forces, according to a senior U.S. national-security official briefed on the recent reports that the intelligence community has shared with the White House and other agencies.

The timing behind any possible move isn't known and doesn't appear to be imminent, a U.S. official said. Such intelligence has been seen before, although with less intensity. U.S. intelligence agencies have seen no indications that Col. Gadhafi intends to leave the country, the officials said.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials believe military pressure on Tripoli in recent days has prompted Col. Gadhafi to seek safer ground, after more than three months of allied attacks. Col. Gadhafi has several residences and other facilities outside Tripoli to which he could relocate, said a senior U.S. defense official.

The intelligence disclosure by U.S. officials comes as the White House tries to fend off congressional efforts to curtail American participation in the NATO-led Libya campaign.

President Barack Obama, who on Wednesday announced the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, has limited the U.S. role in attacking Col. Gadhafi's forces, taking a backseat to European allies.

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Despite reports that Gadhafi is considering leaving the capital Tripoli, Libya's rebels say their need for weapons is urgent in order for them to defeat the strongman's forces. Video courtesy of AFP.

Signs of progress would be likely to bolster support for U.S. participation in the Libya campaign, as Mr. Obama faces mounting criticism from Republicans and Democrats over the effort.

Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the legal grounds for Washington's continued involvement in the conflict. A bill set for a vote on Friday would authorize U.S. participation in Libya for one year, but require "a full and updated rationale" from the Obama administration for conducting military operations.

Another bill, also set for Friday, sponsored by Republican Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, would block U.S. drone strikes in Libya.

U.S. officials cited intelligence showing the military campaign in Tripoli was taking a toll on the regime. "NATO's efforts to reduce the Libyan regime's capability to command and control military forces are having an effect," the senior defense official said. "It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to operate inside Tripoli."

Some U.S. officials, though eager for Col. Gadhafi's departure from power, are now worrying that NATO and Libya's African neighbors aren't properly planning for the chaos that might result, in the same way that lack of planning for the fall of Saddam Hussein contributed to the long war that followed in Iraq.

"We, the international community, could be in postconflict Libya tomorrow and there isn't a plan, there is not a good plan," the senior U.S. commander in Africa, Gen. Carter Ham, told The Wall Street Journal.

Gen. Ham predicted that Col. Gadhafi could fall quickly, underlining the need for an allied plan to deal with the aftermath. He said the United Nations or African Union might have to contribute a significant ground force to Libya. He stressed that the U.S. wouldn't send troops.

"If it ends in chaos, if it is a state collapse and all the institutions of the government fall apart, you will potentially need a sizable force on the ground to secure critical infrastructure and maintain law and order," Gen. Ham said.

The new intelligence shows rebels "closing in on some regime cities," increasing pressure on Col. Gadhafi. U.S. officials declined to discuss specific rebel movements but said the gains were mainly in western Libya.

In the eastern, rebel-held city of Misrata, however, rebels say they have been unable to break out and gain new ground, particularly to the west on the coastal highway to Tripoli.

Commanders in Misrata, about 125 miles east of Tripoli, said Thursday that they have lost 38 fighters over the past week, mostly in rocket and mortar attacks by Col. Gadhafi's forces.

Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy ambassador to the U.N., who defected shortly after hostilities broke out in February, predicted Thursday that an attack from opposition fighters from the mountainous west, rather than from the opposition-controlled east, would bring about the regime's fall before the end of July.

Mr. Dabbashi, among the first high-profile defectors, said he believed a "final battle" was just weeks away, based on recent movements of opposition forces in the western and southern parts of the country. He said he is in daily contact with members of the opposition.

In Tripoli, NATO's airstrikes have limited Col. Gadhafi's ability to maneuver around the capital, according to regime officials, although they insist he remains in firm control of the war effort.

Opposition activists in Tripoli say Col. Gadhafi each night shuttles among the capital's hospitals, churches and museums with a small retinue, in order to avoid NATO assassination attempts.

Libya has long accused NATO of targeting Col. Gadhafi; NATO has repeatedly denied that its strikes have deliberately targeted Col. Gadhafi and top regime officials.

Col. Gadhafi broadcast a defiant audio message on Wednesday night that gave little indication he was about to give up. "Go on and attack us for two years, three years or even 10 years. But in the end, the aggressor is the one who will lose," he said, according to the Associated Press.

NATO bombs have rained down on Col. Gadhafi's sprawling Bab-al Azizayh compound in central Tripoli since the campaign began in March, but the Libyan leader is thought to have long abandoned that site as a command-and-control center.

But there have been strikes on areas with no obvious military utility. On June 8, a bomb hit an area that the Libyan regime described as a nature reserve in the suburb of Hadba, on the outskirts of the capital.

Reporters bused to the site just hours after the strike saw camels and goats foraging amongst the smoking remains of a truck, a generator and a luxury tent of the kind Col. Gadhafi was known to have used to meet foreign dignitaries. Ali Mohammed, chief caretaker of the preserve, refused to say whether Col. Gadhafi had been at the site the previous night.

"The leader likes natural wide-open spaces, that's why he likes these places," Mr. Mohammed said. "NATO thinks Col. Gadhafi is everywhere, that's why they hit everywhere."

[Source: By Adam Entous And Julian E. Barnes, The Wall Street Journal, Washington, 23Jun11]

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