Washington: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday Libya`s rag-tag rebels needed training more than guns in their battle against Muammar Gaddafi`s Army but that other nations should do the job.
Facing lawmakers concerned that armed intervention in Libya could end in stalemate, Gates and top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said a NATO-led air campaign had damaged Gaddafi`s forces but not yet brought them to a breaking point.
Gates said the military mission did not call for deposing Gaddafi but he said economic and political pressure and Libya`s people -- not air strikes -- would eventually drive Gaddafi from power.
With the outgunned opposition in retreat, the United States and its allies were now looking at how to assist the makeshift force, with weapons or other help, Gates said.
The Pentagon chief described the rebels as a "disparate”, improvised force that had a supply of small arms seized at regime depots but sorely lacked military leadership.
"What they really need is training, command and control and some coherent organisation," Gates told the House Armed Services Committee.
He said training "requires advisers on the ground, as would more sophisticated weapons in terms of training them on how to use those weapons”.
But Gates, insisting on a limited US role, said other countries could and should provide the training and assistance instead of the United States.
"The truth is in terms of providing that training, in terms of providing that assistance to them, frankly, there are many countries that can do that.”
"That`s not a unique capability of the United States and as far I`m concerned someone else should do that," he said.
Mullen said the United States was still weighing whether to arm and train the rebels, but agreed that other governments -- including some Arab countries -- could carry out the task.
A detailed picture of the rebels was still hard to come by, and the US government had biographical information for only a handful of leaders in the east, Gates said.
"We really don`t know very much about what I think is a very disparate, disaggregated opposition to Gaddafi," he said.
His comments on the rebels came as US media reported CIA operatives were on the ground making contact with the opposition and amid speculation British and French intelligence and special forces` officers had started helping the opposition.
Gates, a former CIA director who led efforts to arm Afghan fighters against Soviet forces in the 1980s, declined to comment on the spy agency`s work in Libya.
Admiral Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the same hearing about 20 to 25 percent of Gaddafi`s military had been knocked out by coalition bombing but "that does not mean he`s about to break from a military standpoint”.
Gaddafi`s Army -- equipped with tanks and heavy guns on the ground -- still enjoyed a major edge over the rebels, said Mullen, estimating a "ten to one ratio" in favour of the regime.
Lawmakers voiced concerns about the risk of an open-ended war, complained the White House had failed to consult them in advance and worried whether the Libyan leader could still be standing when the dust settles.
"I just don`t see how this ends," said Senator Susan Collins.
With NATO now in command, the US military`s involvement would in a matter of days "significantly ramp down”, Gates said, repeating a vow of "no American boots on the ground”.
Gates said the coalition air campaign launched March 19 was designed to protect civilians and not to remove Gaddafi, but suggested the strikes would steadily squeeze the regime.
He said Gaddafi`s inner circle would be forced to choose whether to stick by him or save themselves as NATO bombing gradually decimates the regime`s Army.
"In my view, the removal of Colonel Gaddafi will likely be achieved over time through political and economic measures and by his own people," he said.
As lawmakers voiced concerns about the rebels whose political stance remained unclear, Gates pushed back, saying what was important was the threat posed by Gaddafi.
With popular unrest sweeping the region, Arab countries and European allies had backed military intervention because of Gaddafi`s "potential for disrupting everything in the Middle East right now”, he said.