April 20, 2011 -- After spending weeks trying to determine who the rebels in Libya are and what they want, the Obama administration has notified Congress it intends to provide the rebels with $25 million in assistance. It will not include arms or ammunition.
In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Friday, obtained by ABC News and first reported by the Washington Times, the State Department said the assistance is meant to help the opposition defend civilians from forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"The President's proposed actions would provide urgently needed non-lethal assistance to support efforts to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya," the letter from Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Joseph Macmanus said. Administration officials also briefed the Hill on the plans on Tuesday.
The State Department today denied it was trying to tip the balance of the months long stalemate between the rebels and Gadhafi's forces.
"I don't necessarily see that as a final ending. These people are protecting themselves and their families and loved ones against an attack on their cities, on their homes. And we're trying to help them better protect those people," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
A senior State Department official says the assistance will be provided "in support of key partners including the Transitional National Council," the main opposition group based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Bulletproof Vests and Binoculars
"The TNC has identified a range of non-lethal assistance which could assist its efforts," a justification document accompanying Friday's letter said.
According to the document, the aid could include medical equipment, protective vests, binoculars, and radios. The State Department later said vehicles and fuel would not be on the list.
The Obama administration was initially hesitant to back the TNC, while allies like France, Italy, and Qatar rushed to declare formal recognition of the opposition movement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met twice with a senior representative from the group and finally decided to send an envoy, Chris Stevens, to liaison with the group in Benghazi.
In recent days the State Department has said it is developing a more positive picture of the TNC.
"We're encouraged by what we've seen," Toner told reporters yesterday.
Still, divisions within the group persist, complicating the picture. The New York Times today reported on two key rebel generals who do not appear to be working together and may not even like each other, raising the question of who will receive the aid.
France and Great Britain appear undeterred. Both have said they will send military trainers to help rebel fighters, many of whom were civilians just a few months ago. Qatar has gone a step further, and is said to be the source of weapons like AK-47s that have recently been sent to the opposition fighters.