Obama: Can't back Libyan rebels "with both feet"

Rebel troops were losing more ground in Libya Wednesday as forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi launched a series of new attacks. This, as NATO was assuming full-control from the United States of allied military efforts in Libya, and the U.S. and other nations agreed at a summit in London that Qaddafi must give up power - but couldn't agree on how to make it happen.

And in an interview with "Early Show" co-anchor Erica Hill in New York Tuesday, President Obama conceded that, "Among all the people who (are) opposed (to) Qaddafi, there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests. ... And that's why I think it's important for us not to -- jump in with both feet" with all of them.

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Mr. Obama also said the no-fly zone established by allies over Libya can be maintained for some time, and that it's time to "ratchet up" diplomatic and political pressure on Qaddafi "so that at some point -- he makes a decision to leave."

Watch Erica Hill's complete interview of President Obama

"I think it's too early to tell what's gonna happen," the president said. "Here's what we do know. Because of our intervention -- probably thousands of lives have been saved. Qaddafi's forces have been greatly degraded, so he can do a lot less damage, a lot less harm inside of Libya. We've been able to set up a no fly zone that assures that he's not using his air power against his own people. ... So the noose has tightened around him. And it -- we are now gonna be moving into a phase where having maintained the no fly zone, continuing to protect the Libyan people -- we've gotta ratchet up our diplomatic and our political pressure on him. ... so that at some point -- he makes a decision to leave."

Asked whether there have been any discussions or meetings with anyone in Qaddafi's camp, Mr. Obama replied, "Well, I think that -- Qaddafi's camp, people around him are starting to recognize that their options are limited and their days are numbered. And so, they're probably reaching out to a range of -- different people. But that information may not have filtered to -- Qaddafi yet. And I think it's too early for us to start having formal negotiations. Qaddafi knows exactly what he needs to do -- to actually -- implement a ceasefire. ... He's got to stop -- going on the offensive -- in certain areas. You know, he knows steps he could take -- that would -- stop the constant bombardment that he's under. And it may at some point shift to him figuring out how to negotiate an exit. But I don't think we're at that point yet."

If Qaddafi "sticks around for a little bit longer and maintains control on even just part of the country," Hill inquired, "how long can the coalition go on enforcing this no-fly zone?"

"Well," the president responded, "one of the important things that we did -- was to make sure that we didn't go in there alone. ... But it was also important because it meant that with a strong international mandate and international participation, we can maintain that no fly zone for a more significant period of time. We've already transitioned out. So, the day-to-day -- over flights to maintain a no fly zone in Libya are no longer primarily the U.S. responsibility. ... And that means many partner countries ... are able to help implement that no fly zone. And that means that it can be sustained for -- a prolonged period of time."

Hill pointed out that, "The Supreme Allied Commander for NATO said (Tuesday) that there are 'flickers' of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah amongst these rebels. And yet, the administration also said (Tuesday) a liaison is being sent to Benghazi -- so that there's closer proximity there. How do we know what their end goal is? And how do we know they won't, in fact, turn on the U.S. and on our allies?"

"Well, first of all, I think it's important to note that -- the people that we've met with have been fully vetted. So, we have -- a clear sense of who they are. And so far, they're saying the right things. And most of them are professionals, lawyers, doctors -- people who appear to be credible. That doesn't mean that all the people -- among all the people who opposed -- Qaddafi, there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests. ... And that's why I think it's important for us not to -- jump in with both feet."

What are the rebels' goals, beyond just removing Qaddafi from power?

"Well," Mr. Obama said, "so far, as I've said, they -- they've said the right thing. They'd like to see -- free and fair elections. They believe that -- human rights need to be respected inside of Libya. And so, if you look at the documents that they've forbear -- prepared and presented -- I think that -- they are on the right track. Ultimately Libya's -- governance is gonna be up to the Libyan people. And we can have some influence over that, but -- again, part of what my goal here has been is to protect the Libyan people, to give them the space and the time to work this stuff out, but not to take -- entire responsibility for -- ushering in - a -- entirely new government -- process. I think that that's something that the international community -- has to be a part of. And -- and we'll play a role in it. But -- it's not just -- something that -- that we do by ourselves."

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