Revolutionary volunteers man a tank at the gates of Ajdabya, near Brega. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration has emphatically called for Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi to step down and has pledged assistance to the rebels seeking to overthrow him.
Yet the U.S. has far less clarity on a key issue: Who's in charge of the Libyan revolution?
U.S. diplomats this week began an intense effort to communicate with the protesters, seeking to identify their leaders and long-term goals. But after three days of calls to Libya from diplomats including U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz in Washington, both of those questions remain unanswered, officials say.
"There are a lot of disparate views out there," sighed a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive diplomacy. Many of the figures who appear to be calling the shots in Libya "are really obscure," the official said. "And they really don't know yet what they want to do."
Trying to figure out who's going to end up in charge, the official said, is like trying to figure out "who's going to be the Republican nominee in 2012."
The issue is far from academic. U.S. officials are trying to determine how to provide humanitarian relief to thousands of people who are fleeing Libya, and are also weighing whether to provide military assistance against Kadafi's forces.
The predicament is similar to what the George W. Bush administration faced after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, veteran diplomats say.
After Saddam Hussein was ousted, the U.S. struggled with competing claims from dozens of Iraqi expatriates and others who sought to lead. Critics said the Bush administration gave too much credence to claimants whose support among Iraqis was thin.
David Mack, a former senior U.S. official who had a major role in trying to determine which Iraqis spoke for the Iraqi public, said "after that experience, my advice to the administration is: caveat emptor."
Unlike in Iraq, U.S. officials said, they don't need to install new leaders in Libya. But they do need to figure out who can speak for Libya at a time when international support is an urgent issue.
One Libyan who has become prominent during the uprising is an elderly former Libyan justice minister, Mustapha Abdul Jalil. He spoke out against Kadafi even before the demonstrations, and many Americans and Libyans who know him praise him as a firm believer in the rule of law.
But U.S. officials say it remains unclear whom Jalil speaks for.
"He's somebody who's stood up and offered to be a player.... It's anybody's guess whether he will turn out to be a player," the official said.
During his 41-year rule, Kadafi has tried to eliminate rivals and prevent Libya from developing strong public institutions, such as the military, that could produce successors. The country has no opposition political parties and a military that, unlike Egypt's, for example, has been weak and divided, because Kadafi wanted to prevent any threat to his power.
Many of those who have stepped forward are middle-class professional people who aren't well known. Another source of leaders could be the 140 or so Libyan tribes, which Kadafi tried but failed to marginalize.
Other potential leaders include diplomats, such as former Libyan Ambassador to the United States Ali Suleiman Aujali, or the deputy Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi. Both have denounced Kadafi.
Another potential leader is Abdul Fatah Younis, a former Libyan general and interior minister, who resigned Feb. 22 and called on the army to join the upheaval.
But it is already clear that those who worked for Kadafi will be unacceptable to others who have supported the leader's overthrow.
Omar Khattaly, a Libyan American with the pro-democracy Libya Working Group, said, "We want to start afresh in Libya, with new faces."
Some regional experts believe there is a chance that a Libyan military veteran will emerge, as Kadafi did when he took over as a 27-year-old military officer.
"Kadafi did it, and it's possible another could too," said Bruce St. John, a veteran Libya specialist.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Wednesday that Libya might develop no strong central government, causing parts of the country to emerge as havens for terrorists.
"One of our biggest concerns is Libya descending into chaos and becoming a giant Somalia," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She noted that many of the Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan had come from eastern Libya, and might return.
There are also a number of Libyan opposition groups scattered around the globe that have been watching with keen interest.
But many of those opposition figures acknowledge that their long absences have pushed them into the background of Libyan politics and that the leading roles in any post-Kadafi world most likely would fall to rebels inside the country.
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.