BENGHAZI, Libya — Sen. John McCain, on a visit to rebel-controlled eastern Libya on Friday, urged the United States and its allies to increase airstrikes and weapons deliveries to bolster the insurgent cause, a call for stepped-up intervention that clashes with the Obama administration's more cautious approach to the conflict.
McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and one of the most vociferous advocates on Capitol Hill for U.S. intervention in Libya, also was the most prominent American to visit the east since the uprising here began in February.
The Arizona senator received a jubilant welcome as residents waved American flags for the first time and cheered in the street as he canvassed the downtown. He urged official U.S. recognition of the opposition leadership here "as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people." And he said "we should take out (Moammar) Gadhafi's television station," referring to the government channel broadcasting from Tripoli, the capital.
"Let's face it: This is not a fair fight," McCain said at a harbor-side hotel after meeting with opposition leaders. "Those who are struggling for liberation are outgunned."
A military standoff currently prevails in Libya. Neither the rebels nor loyalist forces have been able to advance significantly in recent days.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration disagreed with McCain's call for recognition of the rebels' political leadership.
"We think it's for the people of Libya to decide who the head of their country is, not for the United States to do that," Carney said aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama returned to Washington from California.
Carney said U.S. officials had been meeting regularly with opposition leaders and would continue to do so to advise them as they try to prepare for a post-Gadhafi Libya.
Western leaders have argued that airstrikes and other steps taken in Libya were in accordance with United Nations guidelines calling for the protection of Libyan civilians. But fearful of being drawn more deeply into a civil war, they have been hesitant to comply with repeated rebel requests for heavy weapons. On Thursday, the United States began flying armed drones to bolster NATO airstrikes.
McCain reiterated his opposition against deploying U.S. ground forces to assist rebels.
But he did urge the United States and other countries to help deliver more arms to the rebels. He cited the precedent of the 1980s war in Afghanistan, when Washington funneled weaponry through Pakistan to Islamist rebels fighting a Soviet-backed regime.
"Same thing we did in Afghanistan when they were fighting against the Russians," McCain said. "Weapons delivery can be facilitated."
Calling his visit here "one of the most exciting and inspiring days of my life," McCain urged the United States to formally recognize the transitional — and largely unknown — Libyan rebel council.
McCain lauded the council, after meeting with 20 of its 31 members. "Their biographies are well known, their past service is well known," he said. "All have long records of opposition to Gadhafi and in none of them is there any hint of radical Islam."
However, only 10 names of council members have been officially published, and most of the others remain anonymous, ostensibly for their own safety or to protect their families from retaliation. Even the publicly known council members remain an enigma to outsiders and Benghazis alike.
The council is led by Gadhafi's former minister of justice, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, and the military's chief of staff, Abdul Fattah Younes, who was Gadhafi's interior minister. Both defected to the rebel side after the uprising began in February.
In the western city of Misrata on Friday, rebel fighters consolidated control of a key building that had been used by Gadhafi fighters to terrorize the port community with mortars, rockets, cluster bombs and sniper fire.
The rebels occupied the Tamim Life Insurance building that had been abandoned by Gadhafi gunmen a day earlier. The building is located on Tripoli Street, the commercial boulevard that has become the city's main battleground. But Gadhafi fighters continued to control a vegetable market and Misrata's old main hospital, while gunfire, artillery and rockets were fired throughout the day.
Khaled Kaim, Gadhafi's deputy foreign minister, said the Libyan army will pull out of Misrata and be replaced by armed tribesmen. Kaim did not say when the military would pull back from Misrata or when the armed tribesmen would move in. "We will leave it for the tribes around Misrata and the Misrata people to deal with the situation in Misrata," Kaim said.
Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes between rebels and government forces in the city of 300,000. The international community has accused Libyan forces of firing indiscriminately at civilian areas with tanks, rockets and mortars.
Information from the Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Newspapers, Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.