U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Libyan rebels are advancing toward Tripoli from the east and west, and there now is a sense that Moammar Gadhafi's days in power “are numbered.” Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed Libya, Syria and other Middle East issues at a public forum in Washington.
The Libyan rebels have been claiming battlefield advances in recent days. Panetta’s comments, though, were the first by a senior Obama administration official in that span suggesting Gadhafi’s position is indeed eroding.
Appearing with Clinton at Washington’s National Defense University, Panetta said Libyan opposition forces in the west are advancing along the coast toward Tripoli, and rebels in the east are advancing on Brega, a gateway to the capital.
Signs of regime's deterioration
The Pentagon chief said a combination of factors, including this week’s reported defection of Libyan Interior Minister Nasser al-Mabruk Abdullah, point to a decline in Gadhafi’s fortunes.
“Gaddafi’s forces are weakened. And this latest defection is another example of how weak they have gotten," said Panetta. "So I think, considering how difficult the situation has been, the fact is that the combination of NATO forces there, the combination of what the opposition is doing, the sanctions, the international pressure, the work of the Arab League, all of that has been very helpful in moving this in the right direction. And I think the sense is that Gaddafi’s days are numbered.”
Clinton downplayed reported splits within the Libyan rebel movement, and hailed what she said was the first “NATO-Arab alliance” providing military and political support for anti-Gaddafi forces. She also expressed satisfaction that it is not a case of the United States in the lead with everyone else on the sidelines.
Strength in numbers
In that same vein, she said, it is really not of central importance whether the United States has called for the departure of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
“It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go. Okay, fine, what’s next? If Turkey says it, if [Saudi] King Abdullah says it, if other people say it, there is no way that the Assad regime can ignore it,” she said.
The appearance by Clinton and Panetta before military officers and other students at the Defense University came a day after suicide attacks and car bombings in Iraq killed 60 people and raised new concerns about the Baghdad government’s ability to maintain security after the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Iraq's security issues
Both officials said the Obama administration intends to adhere to the commitment to withdraw all combat troops by the end of the year, though Panetta said it is ready to consider an Iraqi request for a continuing training presence.
“We are leaving by the end of the year. Our combat mission is over. The discussions now are what kind of assistance we can continue to provide with regard to training, with regards to other assistance that can be provided. We have done it with other countries. We have done it with other countries in that region. And I think this would be what I would call a normal relationship.”
Clinton said the idea of a U.S. training presence past the end of the year is a discussion Iraqis are having internally and are “beginning to have” with the United States.