Washington/London — US officials said President Barack Obama had authorized covert support for Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Qadhafi, while Libya's foreign minister defected, potentially tipping the scales toward the opposition.
In the past few days, Qadhafi's troops have used superior arms and tactics to push back rebels trying to edge west along the coast from their stronghold in eastern Libya, but any US support be a turning point in the battle over territory.
The West could also gain intelligence on how to bring down Qadhafi from Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, a former spy chief who flew into Britain on Wednesday in what a friend said was a defection in protest at attacks by Qadhafi's forces on civilians.
The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf have fallen in quick succession to the government's lightning counter-strike after the army ambushed the rebels outside Qadhafi's hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert.
The ramshackle rebel forces lack training, discipline and leadership. There are many different groups of volunteers and decisions are often made only after heated arguments.
"We are seeking weapons that will be able to destroy the heavy weapons they are using against us such as tanks and artillery," rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmad Bani said.
"We thought it better to make a tactical withdrawal until we can think of better tactics and a strategy to face this force."
While the United States, France and Britain have raised the possibility of arming the rebels fighting against Qadhafi's 41-year rule, they have all stressed that no decision has yet been taken.
US government sources familiar with the matter say Obama signed the secret order to support the rebels, known as a presidential "finding," within the past two or three weeks.
Such findings are a principal form of presidential directive used to authorize secret operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is a necessary legal step before such action can take place, but it does not mean that it will.
In order for specific operations — for example giving cash or weapons to anti-Qadhafi forces — to be carried out under that authorization, the White House also would have to give additional "permission" allowing such activities.
"As is common practice for this and all administrations, I am not going to comment on intelligence matters," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. "I will reiterate what the president said yesterday — no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya."
Citing unnamed US officials, the New York Times also reported that the CIA had inserted small groups of operatives in Libya with British special forces to gather intelligence for Western-led air strikes pounding Qadhafi's tanks and artillery.
There was no immediate comment from the CIA.
Opening another front against Qadhafi, foreign minister Koussa is one of the highest profile members of the leader's inner circle to quit the administration after the justice and interior ministers and several ambassadors resigned last month.
"Koussa is one of the most senior figures in Qadhafi's government and his role was to represent the regime internationally — something that he is no longer willing to do," a British Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement.
A British government source described his resignation as "a significant blow" to Qadhafi and Koussa's predecessor at the ministry said he was "part of the regime's spinal cord…Koussa is a pillar of the temple."
Koussa, Western-educated and English speaking, was the architect of a dramatic shift in Libya's foreign policy that brought the oil-producing desert state back to the international community after years of sanctions.
If he decides to share his knowledge of Qadhafi's inner circle, he could reveal valuable information about how the administration functions and its weak points.
A Libyan spokesman said Koussa had not defected and was traveling on a diplomatic mission, without giving more details.
A Western diplomat said Koussa's defection was significant because it sent a message to other people at Qadhafi's side that they could still defect, even if they were associated with the bloody crackdown on Qadhafi's opponents.
"We encourage those around Qadhafi to abandon him and embrace a better future for Libya that allows political transition and real reform that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people," Britain's Foreign Office said.
Geoff Porter, an independent analyst on North Africa who has testified on Libya in the US Congress, said Koussa's defection was one of the first signs the Qadhafi elite was fracturing.
"So while (Koussa's)…departure is a sign that things are bad in the Qadhafi camp, it is also a sign that the Qadhafi camp will drift toward extremism, nihilism and acute violence."
Apart from Koussa, Qadhafi's innermost circle is made up principally of his sons and people with family ties, and their loyalty is likely to be more robust.
Qadhafi loyalists have certainly appeared committed to pressing their campaign against the opposition over the past days despite the Western-led military assault.
In town after town along the Libyan coast, Qadhafi forces have unleashed bombardments from tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets which have forced rebels to flee.
"These are our weapons," said rebel fighter Mohammed, pointing to his assault rifle. "We can't fight Grads with them."
Without Western air strikes, the rebels seem unable to make advances or hold their positions against Qadhafi's armor. Western airplanes flew over the battlefield on Wednesday, but there was no evidence of any bombardment of government forces.
"Whether we advance 50km (30 miles), or retreat 50km…it's a big country. They will go back the next day," rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
"This revolution really is only five weeks old. On the political front it is very organized," he said. "Normally it takes six months to train a soldier…We are talking about citizens who picked up guns to protect their homes."