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Libyan rebels may be tied to al-Qaida

  |   March 30, 2011 at 3:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 30 (UPI) -- An Obama administration debate raged on supplying weapons to Libyan rebels as administration officials planned to brief lawmakers on U.S. involvement there.

A growing concern among some administration officials is that providing arms would deepen U.S. involvement in what they believe has become a civil war -- and that some fighters may have links to al-Qaida, officials told The New York Times.

A classified briefing for U.S. senators by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen is to take place at 5 p.m. EDT Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday.

The meeting will follow a similar briefing with House members, officials said.

The senators' meeting will also focus on the joint congressional War Powers Resolution of 1973, which said the president could send U.S. armed forces into action abroad only by authorization of Congress or in case of "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."

Gates said Sunday Libya did not pose a U.S. threat, nor was it "a vital national interest to the United States."

The Obama administration debate over supplying the rebels battling forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi prompted an urgent call for intelligence about who the rebels really are, the Times said.

"We don't know as much as we would like to know," Clinton told reporters in London Tuesday, adding the United States expected it would know more soon.

Clinton and other Western leaders who spoke at the end of an multinational conference on Libya's future said the military operation, which NATO took over Wednesday, would end only with Gadhafi's removal, even if that was not the stated goal of the U.N. Security Council's resolution.

The notion that the rebels had ties to Osama bin Laden's multinational, stateless militant Islamist group al-Qaida -- which allegedly carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington -- surfaced publicly for the first time Tuesday.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm. James G. Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee some "flickers" of intelligence indicated the presence of al-Qaida and Hezbollah members among the rebels.

Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim militant group and political party based in Lebanon. Lebanon has a history of tensions with Libya.

Stavridis said he didn't have enough intelligence to say al-Qaida had a "significant" presence in the Libyan opposition.

France, which has led the international charge against Gadhafi, is increasing pressure on Washington to increase assistance to the rebels, the Times said.

"I'm not ruling it out, but I'm also not ruling it in," Obama told NBC News Tuesday regarding arming the rebels.

Three congressional committees are to hold hearings on Libya Thursday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Armed Services Committee are set for the morning, while the Senate Armed Services Committee is to hold a hearing in the afternoon.

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