Top U.S. intelligence officials said Thursday they expect that Moammar Gadhafy will continue his bloody fight for survival and eventually crush the rebels and opposition groups that now hold almost half of Libya. But the White House sharply disputed that assessment, and is sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to meet with the rebels on the Egyptian border next week.
The dueling assessments of Gadhafy's fortunes emerged as the Obama administration turned aside growing demands that it take more concerted action, including military steps, to bring down the Libyan dictator and end the bloodshed.
In Brussels, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the NATO defense ministers agreed that NATO -- which currently has combat forces fighting insurgents in Afghanistan -- would act in Libya "only if there is a demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and strong regional support.''
In Washington, James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, raised new objections to imposing a no-fly zone, saying that Libya has a "substantial" air defense network, including "a large, large number'' of portable, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, that would threaten U.S. and allied aircraft flying over the country.
Also in Washington Thursday, White House National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon told reporters that the United States is sending civilian disaster relief specialists into eastern Libya to work with the opposition's interim government and international organizations to organize humanitarian relief. These teams, which are trained to operate in austere and dangerous situations, will go in without security or any U.S. military escort, Donilon said.
Donilon insisted that the United States has acted swiftly and boldly to meet the mounting crisis by organizing international support against Gadhafy, imposing sanctions, freezing $32 billion in Libyan assets, and by leading international demands that Gadhafy step down.
He said the White House has strongly warned Libyan loyalists fighting for Gadhafy that they face a sharp choice between quitting now or continuing the bloodshed and being brought to justice someday.
"History is not on the side of Moammar Gadhafy; it is on the side of the Libyan people,'' insisted White House spokesman Ben Rhodes, who along with Donilon briefed reporters by telephone.
But Clapper, the nation's senior-most intelligence officer, and Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, presented a far grimmer picture of the rebels and opposition demonstrators eventually being beaten in a relentless and bloody war of attrition.
Clapper said the view of the intelligence community is "kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over the longer term the regime will prevail.'' He acknowledged that the conflict could stagger to a close, with rebels holding parts of eastern Libya and Gadhafy still in control of Tripoli. Or Libya could shatter into fiefdoms and tribal enclaves like Somalia -- a fertile incubator for Islamist extremists.
Libya has more than 30 major surface-to-air missile sites and a radar complex protecting the coastal cities where most Libyans live. Gadhafy's air forces include 75 or 80 aircraft, of which about a third are strike fighters, Clapper said. The jets are aging and not well maintained but have been able to complete some bombing runs. But, he said, "they're somewhat akin to the gang that can't shoot straight, since they're doing this visually and have not caused a very many casualties.''
Clapper and Burgess, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said two elite Libyan army units, the 9th
brigades, are loyal to Gadhafy, well equipped with tanks, artillery and air defenses, and highly disciplined. They suggested that Gadhafy's forces could hold out indefinitely even with an international arms embargo.
Gadhafy "seems to have staying power, unless some other dynamic changes at this time,'' Burgess said. "Initially, the momentum was with the other side. That has started to shift. Whether or not it has fully moved to Gadhafy's side at this time I think is not clear.'' But the initiative, he said, "may actually be on the regime side at this time.''
Clapper's statements caused a furor on Capitol Hill. If Gadhafy's forces can beat back the rebels, said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, all the more reason for the United States to intervene now with force. The situation "really calls on us to act quickly, not to let this happen,'' Lieberman said.
"We're being asked by an escalating chorus of voices from within the Arab world to please help the opposition to Gadhafy,'' Lieberman said, adding that this is "a new chance for us to link up with the aspirations of people in the Arab world.''
Clapper's prediction of defeat for the Libyan opposition prompted a furious Sen.Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to demand that Clapper resign or be fired.
"The situation in Libya remains tenuous and the director's comments today on Gadhafi's 'staying power' are not helpful to our national security interests,'' Graham said in a statement, using a different spelling of the leader's name. "His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi ... and undercut our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy."
At the White House, Donilon argued that superior military forces alone can't guarantee Gadhafy's survival. He said the growing isolation of the Libyan government, the cumulative effect of the sanctions, and the freezing of Gadhafy's assets are putting inexorable pressure on the regime.
Most important, Donilon said, is the change that has ignited popular political upheaval across North Africa and the Arab world: armed repression no longer has the power it once had.
"The fear dynamic has been lost,'' Donilon said. "People -- and especially young people -- have confronted regimes that have been repressing them ... it's hard to overstate the significance of this historic change, really movements of people pursuing their aspirations in nonviolent fashion.''