WASHINGTON, March 30: US President Barack Obama has said he does not rule out arming the rebels seeking to overthrow Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi.

In a series of television interviews broadcast on Wednesday, Mr Obama claimed that Col Qadhafi had been greatly weakened and would eventually step down.

Asked if he supported arming the rebels, President Obama told NBC News: “I'm not ruling it out, but I'm not ruling it in. We're still making an assessment partly about what Qaddafi's forces are going to be doing.”

The comments come amid a fierce debate within the Obama administration over the issue. Some Obama officials fear that providing arms would deepen US involvement in a civil war and that some of the fighters may have links to Al Qaeda.

The US media reported on Wednesday that the debate has drawn in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon and has prompted an urgent call for intelligence about the rebels.

On Tuesday afternoon, a Nato military commander, Admiral James Stavridis, further stoked the controversy when he told a Senate hearing that there were “flickers” in intelligence reports about the presence of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah members among the rebels.

“Well, first of all, I think it's important to note that the people that we've met with have been fully vetted,” Mr Obama told CBS News when asked to comment on the admiral's statement.

“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.” But Mr Obama acknowledged that there might be elements among the rebels who were unfriendly to the US and its interests. “That's why I think it's important for us not to jump in with both feet but to carefully consider: What are the goals of the opposition? What kind of transition do they want to bring about inside of Libya?”

President Obama also claimed that the “noose has tightened” around Col Qadhafi and those around him recognise that “their options are limited and their days are numbered”.

The US and other nations, he said, needed to “ratchet up our diplomatic and political pressure” on Mr Qadhafi to force him to step down.

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