'Flickers' of al-Qaeda among rebels, says Nato chief


THE US officer in charge of the war on Libya admitted yesterday that there are “flickers” of al-Qaeda and Hizbullah within the Libyan opposition that Nato is supporting, but admitted to insufficient knowledge of the rebels.

Nato’s supreme allied commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, told a Senate hearing: “We are examining very closely the content, composition, the personalities, who are the leaders of these opposition forces.”

The formal transition of responsibility for the Libyan war from Gen Carter Ham of the US Africa command to Admiral Stavridis at Nato is to occur today. The shift appears to be mainly symbolic, since Admiral Stavridis is head of the US European Command as well as top officer at Nato .

Admiral Stavridis said the rebel leaders appeared to be “responsible men and women” but added: “We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, we’ve seen different things. But at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say there is a significant al-Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence.”

The task of assessing the Libyan rebels and determining who should be supported will fall to US diplomat Chris Stevens, whose appointment as envoy to the Libyan National Council was announced yesterday.

Also yesterday, the Pentagon said the US has spent $550 million on the Libyan war so far, not including the F-15E fighter aircraft that crashed. A Pentagon spokeswoman said costs will diminish as Nato takes over, and estimated the US will spend another $40 million in the coming weeks.

President Barack Obama addressed neither the make-up of the rebel movement nor the cost of the intervention in his half-hour speech on Monday evening.

Although Mr Obama explained at length the rationale for taking military action, the speech did little to quell criticism from members of Congress. They have continued to ask how long the conflict will last, how much it will cost and how it will end .

“The speech failed to provide Americans much clarity to our involvement in Libya,” said a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

“Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: what does success in Libya look like?”

Sen John McCain told CBS News that the president was wrong not to “continue all the way to Tripoli”. Mr McCain predicted a stalemate if Col Muammar Gadafy remains in power “the same kind of thing we saw with Saddam Hussein when we established a no-fly zone, sanctions etc and it lasted 10 years. Gadafy in power will continue to commit acts of terror against his own people.”

Editorial reaction to Mr Obama’s speech was equally mixed. The conservative Wall Street Journal criticised him for “overtly disavowing American global leadership” and urged Republicans “to prod Mr Obama to push for a faster resolution that ends with the toppling of Gadafy and his sons from power.”

“ should not overestimate the patience of the American people or the weariness of the overstretched military,” the New York Times warned.

The Washington Post echoed the right’s refrain that hope is not a policy. “What was missing from Mr Obama’s address was a strategy that doesn’t rely on good fortune – a sudden coup, an unexpected rebel advance, or an unlikely political deal for Mr Gadafy’s departure,” it said.

US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told CBS that Col Gadafy could remain in power for some time.

“It may not happen overnight,” Ms Rice admitted.

“Recall that in the Balkans after we fought Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo, it was many months, even over a year, before he stepped down from power.”