US fears al-Qaeda in Libya
Washington - The United States on Wednesday signalled growing caution about military intervention in Libya while it raised fears that al-Qaeda could gain a foothold if the North African nation descends into chaos.
In testimony to the US Senate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that any US intervention to help opponents of Muammar Gaddafi would be "controversial" both within Libya and the broader Arab community.
She has said that Washington understands the Libyan opposition wants to "be seen as doing this by themselves" as they seek ways to dislodge Gaddafi and his forces from the capital Tripoli and other areas they hold.
In a speech on Wednesday, Gaddafi warned that "thousands" would die if the West intervened to support the more than two-week old uprising against him.
The 22-member Arab League adopted a resolution on Wednesday appearing to oppose all foreign intervention in Libya before announcing later it would consider backing a no-fly zone over the fellow Arab country.
In her Senate testimony, Clinton underlined remarks from US defence leaders who said on Tuesday that imposing a no-fly zone would be "extraordinarily" complex and that Nato has yet to agree on any military intervention there.
"There is a great deal of caution that is being exercised with respect to any actions that we might take other than in support of humanitarian missions," the chief US diplomat said when asked about military options for Libya.
She recalled how the former administration of president Bill Clinton, her husband, faced a similar dilemma in the Balkans in the 1990s before eventually deciding a no-fly zone there would advance peace and stability.
Referring to Libya, Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "I think we are a long way from making that decision."
Despite US caution, she added: "We are taking no option off the table, so long as the Libyan government continues to turn its guns on its own people."
If the United States and Nato imposed a no-fly zone, US and allied military aircraft would ensure that Gaddafi's warplanes and helicopters were grounded so they cannot attack the Libyan opposition.
The US Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a symbolic resolution urging the world to consider imposing a no-fly zone over Libya while John Kerry, the Senate committee's Democratic chairperson, voiced support for it on Wednesday.
"A no fly-zone is not a long-term proposition and we should be ready to implement it as necessary," Kerry said in a statement.
Two US warships, the USS Kearsage and the USS Ponce, steamed on Wednesday into the Mediterranean en route to Libya, the Suez Canal Authority said.
The Kearsage amphibious ready group, with about 800 marines, a fleet of helicopters and medical facilities, could support humanitarian efforts as well as military operations.
However, US aircraft carriers transporting warplanes rather than helicopters were used to enforce a no-fly zone in southern Iraq in the 1990s.
Reaching out to opposition
In reply to questions about what the Obama administration was doing to fight al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa, Clinton said "one of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into a chaos and becoming a giant Somalia.
"It's right now not something we see in the offing, but many of the al-Qaeda activists in Afghanistan and later in Iraq came from Libya and came from eastern Libya which is now the so-called free area of Libya," she said.
Clinton later told the Senate Appropriations Committee the United States is "actively reaching out" to the Libyan opposition.
"We are actively reaching out to Libyans... We are working to understand who is legitimate, who is not, but it is premature in our opinion to recognize one group or another," Clinton said.
"We have to focus at this point on helping the Libyan people," she said.
"It's important to recognise that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the motives, the opportunism, if you will of people who are claiming to be leaders right now," she added.
"I think we have to be focusing on the humanitarian mission and then gathering information as we can," said the top US diplomat.