BENGHAZI, Libya — Calling his visit here, "one of the most exciting and inspiring days of my life" Republican Sen. John McCain called for the U.S. to formally recognize the transitional — yet largely unknown — rebel council here.
McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the most vociferous advocate on Capitol Hill for U.S. intervention, also was the most prominent American to visit the liberated east since the uprising here began in February. He received a jubilant welcome here as residents waved American flags for the first time and cheered in the street as he canvassed the downtown.
Where signs once hung that read "No Foreign Intervention," stood posters Friday along McCain's route that said: "Thank you for your support. Thank you for saving our lives."
McCain said he was in Benghazi "to get an on-the-ground assessment of the situation," and within hours of his arrival called the rebels "my heroes." He toured downtown Benghazi, which is covered with graffiti critical of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, met with wounded rebel fighters at a local hospital and local rebel leaders.
McCain's support for the effort here comes as consensus grows that the war here is becoming a stalemate. On one side are Gadhafi forces that are fighting with a limited air force, and on the other are ill-equipped and poorly trained rebels who insist that with more international intervention, they can prevail.
Some believe that NATO intervention here is prolonging a war that otherwise would have ended quickly with the rebels' defeat, rather than the protracted conflict some fear. Still others, such as McCain, believe a stalemate will create a power vacuum that al Qaida and other extremists groups could exploit. Therefore, the U.S. should do more, short of boots on the ground, McCain said.
"I fear a stalemate," McCain said at a news conference.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that while the U.S. will continue to advise opposition leaders, some decisions belong to the Libyans.
"We think it's for the people of Libya to decide who the head of their country is, not for the United States to do that," Carney said.
In what appeared to be an effort to help the rebels, the White House said the U.S. would send the rebel council $25 million in non-military aid. In addition, the Defense Department said Thursday that it would deploy drones, known as Predators, against Gadhafi forces.
But Pentagon officials privately worry about mission creep, noting that the U.S. military is increasingly arming rebels and NATO allies alike with equipment they don't know how to use, which may require the U.S. to get more involved.
Also at issue is the trustworthiness of the rebel council. Of the 31 members of the council, only 11 have been publicly named. The rest live in places that remain in Gadhafi control, such as his hometown of Sirte, making the release of their names too risky, the council said. Even the publicly known council members remain an enigma to outsiders and Benghazis alike.
McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, rejected assertions that the rebels are too unknown to earn U.S. backing: "We didn't know who would come after Hitler" either, to the applause of Libyan reporters attending the press conference.
During his visit, McCain met with rebel president Mustafa Abdil Jalil and Army leader Abdelfatah Younis, but not his supposed rival, field commander Gen. Khalifa Hifter. He also visited Jalaa Hospital here, which is treating some of the wounded from the western city of Misrata, the scene of the heaviest fighting between Gadhafi forces and the rebels during this war.
Where fighting around here was along a barren desert highway, residents in Misrata are engaged in heavy urban warfare for control of Libya's third-largest city.
Meanwhile, rebels had reportedly taken over a border post, Wazan, between Libya and Tunisia, which would mark the first major victory for the rebels in western Libya. Witnesses said the rebel's tri-color flag hung at the post but the Libyan government denied the claims.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011