Should the U.S. Arm Libyan Rebels, Despite ‘Flickers’ of Al Qaeda Influence? [Updated]

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Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

A debate is roiling in Washington and beyond over whether the coalition forces should supply arms to the Libyan rebels who are fighting a back-and-forth civil war against the Qaddafi regime. If the allies decide to arm the rebels, it would push U.S. involvement past the U.N. resolution, not to mention stop us from using euphemisms for war and admit it's the real deal. As outgunned rebels in eastern Libya were being forced back by loyalist troops on Wednesday, intelligence services have been looking into who exactly we would be arming.

The U.S. has already given the opposition the go-ahead to sell crude oil from rebel-held territories by declaring that the embargo only holds for oil sold by the Libyan National Oil Corporation. But Washington is much less decided on whether to arm or not to arm. Hillary Clinton emphasized that the U.S. had a right to transfer weapons despite an arms embargo on Libya because of the U.N. resolution authorizing military action to protect civilians.

The Times reported that Clinton met with senior opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril but admitted that the rebels were "largely a mystery." “We don’t know as much as we would like to know and as much as we expect we will know,” she said.

Eastern Libya, where the rebels are based, has long been suspected of supplying recruits for terrorist organizations. “Al Qaeda in that part of the country is obviously an issue,” a senior official told the New York Times. At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, NATO military commander Admiral James Stavridis said intelligence reports showed “flickers” of Al Qaeda's and Hezbollah's presence among rebel forces. Eastern Libya was the center of Islamist protests in the late nineties, but it's unclear whether groups here are still tied to Al Qaeda.

As for the president, Obama managed to leave his options open while saying nothing at all:
“I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also not ruling it in,” he told NBC News. “We’re still making an assessment partly about what Qaddafi’s forces are going to be doing. Keep in mind, we’ve been at this now for nine days.”

Washington in Fierce Debate on Arming Libyan Rebels [NYT]
France ready to talk about arming Libyan rebels [Reuters]
Intelligence on Libya rebels shows "flickers" of Qaeda [Reuters]
Gaddafi's stand risks stalemate in the east [Al Jazeera]

Update: Why bother arming the rebels when you can outsource the war? Deane-Peter Baker, an Annapolis professor and private security expert, thinks the U.S. can get around both the stalemate in Libya and the restrictions on using NATO ground troops by helping the rebels hire mercenaries, or as Baker calls them, the "ultimate volunteers."

The U.S. should “provide the necessary funding for the rebels to secure the services of one or more of the private companies that could supply the necessary expertise and logistical support to turn the rebel rabble into a genuine fighting force,” Baker argues.

The president of the International Peace Operations Association, an advocacy group for private security firms, says companies don't want to get into business with the rebels because it could be illegal under the U.N. resolution authorizing war. But, hey, if we're going to fund mercenaries, why not just offer the ones Qaddafi hired double? This escalating civil war could really use a bidding war over armed goons.

The ‘Mercs for Libyan Rebels’ Drumbeat Begins [Wired]