Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Obama signals willingness to arm Libyan rebels

(CNN) - On a day when opposition forces in Libya suffered battlefield losses, President Barack Obama made clear in interviews Tuesday with the three major U.S. television networks that he was open to arming the rebel fighters.

"I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in," Obama told NBC in one of the separate interviews he gave the day after a nationally televised speech on the Libya situation.

"I think it's fair to say that if we wanted to get weapons into Libya, we probably could," Obama told ABC. "We're looking at all our options at this point."

The president also signaled a willingness to negotiate a settlement to the conflict with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but only based on the condition that Gadhafi would relinquish power as called for by the United States and its allies.

Asked about the chances of Gadhafi fleeing or losing vital support from his family and top aides, Obama said that he believes those close to the Libyan leader likely feel what he called a tightening noose.

"I think that Gadhafi's camp, people around him, are starting to recognize that their options are limited and their days are numbered, and so they are probably reaching out to a range of different people," Obama told CBS. "But that information may not have filtered to Gadhafi yet and I think it's too early for us to start having formal negotiations."

Gadhafi "knows exactly what he needs to do to stop the constant bombardment that he's under, and it may at some point shift to him to figuring out how to negotiate an exit, but I don't think we're at that point yet," Obama continued on CBS.

On ABC, the president said that "the first step is for Gadhafi to send a signal that he understands the Libyan people don't want him ruling anymore, that 40 years of tyranny is enough."

"Once he makes that decision, I think the international community will come together and make a determination as to what the most appropriate way of facilitating him stepping down will be," Obama said.

The interviews continued the determined tone of Obama's Monday night speech, which detailed the strategic and moral reasons for committing U.S. troops to the Libyan mission while also promising the U.S. role would be limited in time and scope.

Initially led by U.S. forces due to their "unique capabilities" for taking out Libya's anti-aircraft and communications stations to establish a no-fly zone, the mission shifts to NATO control this week so allied nations share the responsibility and costs, Obama said.

He pointed out to CBS that coalition airstrikes on Gadhafi forces threatening civilian populations "will continue for some time" despite the transfer in mission leadership.

"One of the questions that we want to answer is, do we start getting to a stage where Gadhafi's forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups?" Obama said on CBS.