WASHINGTON - Fortified by formal U.S. recognition as Libya's legitimate government, fighters loyal to the rebel Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC) made a key advance Monday by reportedly gaining control of most of the eastern oil port of Brega.
But whether that achievement, combined with the diplomatic gains made by the TNC in recent days, will be enough to decisively break the protracted deadlock in the civil war, now entering its sixth month, remains doubtful, according to both officials and independent analysts here.
Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi, who has been personally rallying forces loyal to him in cities in and around Tripoli, appears well- entrenched in the capital, even as rebel forces in the east and western mountains seem to be advancing for the moment.
"We think the overall tide of events has clearly shifted toward the rebels," one administration official told IPS. "But that doesn't mean this isn't going to take a good while longer."
Monday's advance on Brega came three days after the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama joined 27 other governments in offering official recognition of the TNC as "the legitimate governing authority for Libya".
Speaking at the meeting of the "Libya Contact Group" in Istanbul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington had received sufficient assurances from the TNC regarding its "intention to pursue democratic reform that is inclusive geographically and politically, and to uphold Libya's international obligations and to disburse funds in a transparent manner, to address the humanitarian and other needs of the Libyan people" to justify recognition.
"We will help the TNC sustain its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya, and we look to it to remain steadfast in its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms," she added.
In addition to its psychological and diplomatic impact, Washington's decision to recognise the TNC paves the way for the transfer of some of the roughly 32 billion dollars in Libyan assets that the administration froze at the end of February to protest Gaddafi's violent crackdown on protests around the country.
In a background briefing after Friday's announcement, senior U.S. officials stressed that any funds released by the U.S. would have to be used by the TNC for humanitarian aid and basic public services, rather than weapons or other forms of military assistance to enhance its fighting capabilities against Gaddafi's forces.
The briefers also stressed that funds are unlikely to be released very soon. "We still have to work through various legal issues, but we expect this step on recognition will enable the TNC to access additional sources of funding," Clinton said in her announcement.
The latest developments come amid growing pressure by some of Washington's NATO allies, notably France and Britain, on the administration to provide more support for the NATO military campaign in Libya.
The Financial Times reported Monday that Britain's defence secretary, Liam Fox, had asked Washington's new Pentagon chief, Leon Panetta, for more help but failed to get a commitment.
Since the early days of the campaign when the U.S. took the lead in bombing key targets, particularly Libya's air force and air-defence systems, Washington has played a more limited role.
Most of its operations have been confined to logistical support, aerial surveillance and refuelling, and providing targeting information, although U.S. warplanes and Predator drones have also been used occasionally to strike specific targets.
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Washington's self-imposed restraints have frustrated France and Britain, as well as several other NATO allies that are taking part in the campaign, which have found that their own much more modest capabilities and military equipment are being stretched to the limit.
Arguing that Washington is already bearing almost all of the burden of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that Europe has far more at stake in North Africa than the U.S., the Obama administration also faces domestic pressure to limit its Libya intervention.
Pluralities and majorities of respondents in numerous polls taken here since March have said that Washington should "not be involved" in military operations in Libya.
That discontent has been compounded by the administration's insistence that its operations fall short of the level of "hostilities" that, under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, would require the president to gain Congressional authorisation to continue them after 60 days.
That position stirred a bipartisan revolt in Congress.
Late last month, the House of Representatives rejected a resolution, based on a Senate counterpart co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. John Kerry that would have authorised U.S. participation in the NATO operation for up to one year.
Several days later, Kerry's Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution by a 14-5 margin, but the full Senate, which appeared poised to pass it earlier this month, is now unlikely to act on it until September.
Earlier this month, the House approved an amendment to a Pentagon appropriations bill that barred funding for arming, equipping, training or advising any military force in Libya.
Indeed, while TNC leaders - mostly Western-educated businessmen, professionals, academics, and diplomats - who have come to Washington have made a favourable impression on their interlocutors here, there remains significant concern about the composition, unity and intentions of the diffuse and mostly rag-tag forces nominally under their command.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported last week that rebels in the western mountains had looted and damaged four towns they had taken from Gaddafi's forces last month in apparent reprisal actions.
At the same time, the New York Times reported that some of the 20,000-man portable air-defence missiles (MANPADS) that Gaddafi is believed to have accumulated in recent years were looted from government bunkers in the western mountains and eastern Libya and could not be accounted for.
"MANPADS have long been one of the most worrisome forms of conventional ordnance from a counterterrorist point of view, because of the potential to use them against civilian aircraft," noted Paul Pillar, a former top regional analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, who blogs at the nationalinterest.org website. "It looks like terrorists with thoughts of shooting down airliners have a new source of supply."
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.