WASHINGTON — U.S. officials are becoming increasingly resigned to the possibility of a protracted stalemate in Libya, with rebels retaining control of the eastern half of the divided country but lacking the muscle to drive Moammar Gadhafi from power, the Washington Post reported Friday, citing unnamed U.S. officials familiar with planning for the Libya operation.
Such a deadlock — perhaps backed by a formal cease-fire agreement — could help ensure the safety of Libyan civilians caught in the crossfire between the warring sides. But it could also expand the financial and military commitments by the United States and allied countries that have intervened in the six-week-old conflict, according to the officials.
New evidence of a possible impasse emerged Friday as the head of the opposition's interim governing council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, called for a cease-fire that would halt the fighting and essentially freeze the battle lines. The Libyan government rejected the proposal, saying that it would not "withdraw from our own cities."
At the same time, British officials privately disclosed a recent visit to London by a senior aide to one of Gadhafi's sons, prompting speculation that those close to the Libyan leader were exploring ways to end the fighting.
Gadhafi loyalists continued to pound rebel fighters in the key oil hub of Brega, a town that had been claimed by antigovernment forces less than a week ago.
Yet despite repeated setbacks in recent days, intelligence assessments suggest that the rebels, with continuing NATO air support, are capable now of maintaining control of strongholds such as Benghazi as well as key oil fields in eastern Libya, the Post reported, citing two unnamed U.S. officials privy to classified reports from the region who agreed to discuss them only on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. analysts have concluded that Gadhafi will likely not step aside voluntarily, despite recent defections by top aides. Nor is he likely to be driven any time soon from his Tripoli base, where he has surrounded himself with highly paid fighters and tribal kinsmen who remain fiercely loyal, the officials said.
A stalemate could mean an open-ended mission for the coalition of NATO and Arab countries enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, increasing both the financial and political costs for the participants. But analysts are increasingly confident that Gadhafi can be largely contained within a divided Libya, unable to significantly threaten his neighbors and gradually weakening over time.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not mention such an outcome when he was asked in congressional testimony Thursday about likely results.
One scenario, Gates said, was "that somebody from his military takes him out and then cuts a deal with the opposition." In another case, Gadhafi's loyalist tribes "abandon him and then cut their own deals with each other."
"Another alternative would be clearly our preferred option, which would be that they — these opposition forces and the tribes — come together and begin to create something that resembles a more democratic state that protects the rights of its people," he said.
At a separate hearing last week, Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, acknowledged the possibility of a deadlock in which Gadhafi would continue to control part of the country.
"I do see a situation where that could be the case," he said. "I could see accomplishing the military mission, which has been assigned to me, and the current leader would remain the current leader."
U.S. officials and independent analysts say that Gadhafi has been badly weakened by defections, airstrikes and a freeze on his foreign-held assets.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense and security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, said Gadhafi's internal support would likely "erode from the margins," as tribal leaders and military commanders peel off. But the prospects are nearly as grim for his opponents, a rebel force with "no discipline, no communications and no intelligence, and at best an improvised logistics and supply chain."
"You can't fix those things quickly or easily," he said.
With their proposal for a cease-fire, Libyan rebels appeared to acknowledge their inability to prevail militarily. A spokesman for the opposition offered to halt fighting if Gadhafi would withdraw his troops from Libyan cities and allow people to speak freely.
"We are seeking immediate withdrawal of Gadhafi forces around and inside cities to give Libyan people the freedom to choose," said Abdul-Jalil, the head of the opposition's interim governing council.
"Our main aim is to remove the siege from the cities," he said at a news conference in Benghazi with a United Nations envoy.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim dismissed the offer. "If this is not mad, then I don't know what is. We will not leave our cities," Ibrahim said, according to the Reuters news service.