The Obama administration gave an official blessing to the chief Libyan opposition group Wednesday, opening the way for closer ties but not necessarily recognition as the country's legitimate government.
Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, said that a U.S. diplomat sent to Libya to assess the opposition group, the Transitional National Council, had concluded that "it is a political body which is worthy of our support."
U.S. diplomats have been studying the rebel group for weeks, trying to discern its goals and whether it included militant Islamists or other dangerous elements.
Cretz said at a State Department briefing for reporters Wednesday that, because of the new assessment, the United States would encourage other countries to officially recognize the council and to offer it more aid.
France, Italy and Qatar have already recognized the group, rather than the regime led by Moammar Kadafi, as Libya's legitimate government.
But Cretz said the administration continues to wrestle with whether it should extend recognition to the council.
He said the issue involved a number of complicated legal questions, such as whether the council meets the legal definition of a government and whether recognition of the group would be consistent with American diplomatic precedent.
"We're a very legalistic country," he said in a briefing at the State Department.
U.S. officials contend, however, that the lack of recognition hasn't been an impediment to the administration providing aid to the rebels.
President Obama this week approved the provision of up to $25 million worth of surplus equipment to the rebels, including communications gear, medicine and bullet-proof vests.
Cretz said U.S. officials believe that the Libyan officials still supporting Kadafi constitute a "hard core" of family and supporters who are strongly resistant to international efforts to convince them to defect.
The United States and its allies in the war have been working hard to try to encourage defections, believing this is the most likely way to bring about the ouster of Kadafi.
But Cretz said the senior officials still with Kadafi are hanging on because they are convinced that they "probably don't have a future" if the Libyan leader falls. He said they probably fear that if they leave it would cost them their lives or their families.
Cretz also painted a bright picture of life in Benghazi, the rebel capital in the eastern part of the country, since Kadafi's harsh regime had been driven out.
He said visitors have been surprised to see public poetry readings, public debates of constitutional issues and the emergence of new civic groups.
"We're seeing what could be the world to be," Cretz said.