Washington: America`s top spy warned that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces would "prevail”, even as the Obama government reached out to the Libyan opposition with direct talks and humanitarian aid.
US President Barack Obama was set to hold a press conference at 1615 GMT on Friday to address issues such as rising oil prices as the world heaps pressure on Gaddafi and grapples for a response to the fighting on the ground.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will travel to the Middle East next week and meet senior anti- Gaddafi figures, said a plan aimed at establishing a no-fly zone over Libya will be presented to NATO on Tuesday.
"We are continuing to plan for the full range of possible options including a no-fly zone," Hillary told a press conference, declining however to indicate who would present it.
She said she shared people`s concerns about such a move. "But we have a lot of experience in this kind of circumstance, from Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere, and we know how challenging it is to do any of the things that a lot of people are calling for."
Washington also said it would soon send humanitarian aid teams to rebel-held areas of eastern Libya, but warned the move should not be seen as military intervention.
Gaddafi unleashed new attacks on Thursday seeking to recover ground lost in three weeks of fighting, and pro-regime forces succeeded in recapturing two eastern towns from out-gunned opposition rebels.
The shifting balance of the fighting provoked Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, to crow that victory was in sight.
And top US spy James Clapper caused a stir on Capitol Hill by appearing to agree with Saif in an assessment of Gaddafi`s military strength.
"Over time I think the regime will prevail," said Clapper at a Senate hearing. "With respect to the rebels in Libya, and whether or not they will succeed or not, I think frankly they`re in for a tough row."
Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, said the momentum in the conflict had "started to shift”.
"We have now reached a state of equilibrium. The initiative may actually be on the regime side."
But Clapper`s comments triggered an outcry, and prompted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to call for him to be fired.
And the White House, which has insisted Gaddafi must go but been reticent about a no-fly zone, was forced onto the defensive.
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said Clapper`s remarks were based on a "static and one-dimensional assessment" of military forces and advantages enjoyed by superior Gaddafi forces in Libya.
He preferred to assess the situation through a "multi-dimensional lens”, saying political factors like Gaddafi`s loss of legitimacy, isolation and the determination of Libya`s people to oust him could be crucial.
Obama was to discuss "rising energy prices among other things" in Friday`s press conference, a White House official said on condition of anonymity, adding that the administration was aware of the economic pain imposed by high fuel costs.
Donilon also appeared to raise the possibility of more formal future support for the opposition in Libya, after US officials had previously said they were assessing the goals and make-up of the rebels.
The White House also revealed new details of US contacts with the opposition, including the National Council, on a day when France moved to recognise the rebels as Libya`s rightful government.
"We are in direct contact with the opposition through a variety of channels, including with all the senior members of the Council and other individuals within Libya," Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.
In his congressional testimony, Clapper said Libyan air defences, including radar and surface-to-air missiles, were "quite substantial" in comments likely to intensify the debate over a no-fly zone.
Looking further ahead, he raised the possibility of "a reversion to the pre- Gaddafi, pre-king history of Libya in which there were three semi-autonomous mini-states”.