AMERICA’s top spy has warned that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces would “prevail,” even as the Obama government reached out to the Libyan opposition with direct talks and humanitarian aid.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would travel to the Middle East next week and meet senior anti-Gaddafi figures. Washington said it would soon send humanitarian aid teams to rebel-held areas of eastern Libya.

The UN revealed today that more than 250,000 people had fled the country into neighbouring countries since the revolt started in mid-February.

Hopes of having a no-fly zone implemented were dealt a blow when the 15-member African Union rejected any military intervention against Colonel Gaddafi.

The announcement came after NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday postponed any decision on a no-fly zone until it got a UN clearance.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to present NATO with a US-backed plan on Tuesday.

As the Gaddafi regime warned insurgents it was poised for victory, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence caused a stir on Capitol Hill and in the White House with his assessment of Gaddafi’s military strength.

“Over time I think the regime will prevail,” Clapper said at a Senate hearing.

“With respect to the rebels in Libya, and whether or not they will succeed or not, I think frankly they’re in for a tough row.”

Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency said that the momentum in the conflict, which has seen Gaddafi desperately fighting to cling on to power, had “started to shift.”

“We have now reached a state of equilibrium. The initiative may actually be on the regime side.”

Clapper’s comments forced the White House, which has insisted Gaddafi must go, though been reticent about a no-fly zone, onto the defensive.

National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Clapper’s remarks were based on a “static and one-dimensional assessment” of military forces and advantages enjoyed by superior Gaddafi forces in Libya.

He preferred to assess the situation through a “multi-dimensional lens,” saying that political factors like Gaddafi’s loss of legitimacy, isolation and the determination of Libya’s people to oust him could be crucial.

Donilon also appeared to raise the possibility of more formal future support for the opposition in Libya, after US officials had previously said they were assessing the goals and make-up of the rebels.

“A static, unidimensional analysis does not take into account steps that can be taken in cooperation with the opposition going forward here,” he said.

But Clapper’s comments and the White House response threatened to muddy the US message on Libya policy – a factor a veteran Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, tried to exploit by calling for Clapper’s resignation.

But Donilon said: “the president’s very happy with the performance of General Clapper, and we work together every single day.”

Clinton will travel next week to Egypt and Tunisia to back their moves towards democracy, and take the chance to meet Libyan opposition leaders.

The White House, meanwhile, revealed new details of US contacts with the opposition, including the National Council, on a day when France took the step of moving to recognise the rebels as Libya’s rightful government.

“We are in direct contact with the opposition through a variety of channels, including with all the senior members of the Council and other individuals within Libya,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.

“We are coordinating with the opposition, with the Council to provide assistance and to determine the best ways we can support their aspirations.”

US officials said on Tuesday that Gene Cretz, who was in Washington before the Libyan uprising erupted last month, had met in Cairo with Gaddafi opponents.

But they had previously declined to identify opposition figures with whom Washington was mounting a dialogue.

Donilon also said Washington would soon send humanitarian relief teams into rebel-held areas of eastern Libya.

But he cautioned the move “should in no way, shape or form be seen as a military intervention” and that the teams would operate with the permission and cooperation of the de-facto rulers of eastern Libya.

In his congressional testimony, Clapper said that Libyan air defences, including radar and surface-to-air missiles, were “quite substantial” in comments likely to intensify the debate over a no-fly zone.

Looking further ahead, he raised the possibility of “a reversion to the pre-Gaddafi, pre-king history of Libya in which there were three semi-autonomous mini-states.”

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