The Obama administration is stepping up its engagement with forces fighting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, inviting opposition leaders to meet with U.S. officials at the White House Friday, while stopping short of recognizing their council as Libya's legitimate government.
The White House said Mahmoud Jibril, a representative of the Libyan Transitional National Council, would meet with senior administration officials, including National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, as well as members of Congress. But there were no plans for President Barack Obama to meet with Jibril and his delegation.
France and Italy are among the nations that recognize the Council as Libya's legitimate government. But White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that while the U.S. would continue consulting and assisting the opposition, giving the Council political legitimacy would be "premature."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking with Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said the U.S. is keeping a "wary eye" on the opposition, and lacks clarity about exactly who the opposition is and what actions they may take long-term.
Still, the U.S. has been boosting its support for the opposition over the past month, including Obama's authorization of $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the rebels. The first shipment of that aid — 10,000 meals ready to eat from Pentagon stocks — arrived in the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi this week. The U.S. has also supplied some $53 million in humanitarian aid.
In addition, the administration has begun working with Congress to free up a portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Gadhafi regime assets in U.S. banks so it can be spent to help the Libyan people. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who met with Jibril this week, said Wednesday he was drafting legislation at the request of the White House that would allow that to happen.
The rebels have said they need up to $3 billion in the coming months for military salaries, food, medicine and other supplies in order to keep fighting Gadhafi's forces. They also say no country has sent the arms that they desperately need.
"We need this money yesterday, not today," Jibril said Thursday during a speech at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "There is a sense of urgency, a real urgency because this is a human tragedy in the making right now."
Jibril also appealed to the U.S. to give the opposition political legitimacy, particularly given the Obama administration's position that Gadhafi's regime no longer has the authority to lead.
"What we are trying to say is that we need political recognition by just recognizing this council as the sole legitimate representative interlocutor of the Libyan people," he said. "We are not talking about a new state that needs recognition."
The U.S. is not alone in assisting the opposition, while not recognizing its political legitimacy. British Prime Minister David Cameron met with Council leaders in London Thursday and said his country would supply police officers in rebel-held eastern Libya with uniforms and body armor, and also allow the Council to open a permanent office in London to help cement contacts with Britain. But he did not offer to recognize the Council as the official Libyan government.
The U.S. and its NATO allies opened a bombing campaign in mid-March to keep Gadhafi's forces from advancing to eastern Libya. After a weeks-long stalemate, the now NATO-led mission has stepped up its strikes in the capital Tripoli and on Gadhafi's compound.
In testimony on Capitol Hill Thursday, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg urged lawmakers to be patient, and said history shows that the persistence of the U.S. and its allies may pay off.
"We recognize that the way forward is not easy, and so we are using as many tools and levers as we can to bring about our ultimate objective: the end of Gadhafi's rule and a new beginning for a peaceful, democratic Libya," he said.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.