* NATO wants more aircraft in 4-month-old bombing campaign
* U.S. again debating whether to arm rebels, official says
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, July 22 (Reuters) - As the war in Libya drags on, the U.S. military is weighing options that may deepen its involvement in the conflict and its alliance with rebels trying to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
A U.S. official told Reuters on Friday that the United States is considering a NATO request to send more Predator drones to Libya, as well as other surveillance aircraft. It has also reopened a debate over arming the rebels, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The options were first reported by the Los Angeles Times, days after new U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared on his first trip abroad as Pentagon chief that prevailing in Libya was one of his top priorities.
But Panetta has also warned that Washington might be asked to take on increased responsibilities as some NATO allies’ cash-strapped militaries start to run out of steam in the bombing campaign launched four months ago
“Within the next 90 days, a lot of these other countries could be exhausted in terms of their capabilities, and so the United States, you know, is going to be looked at to help fill the gap,” Panetta told U.S. forces in Baghdad earlier this month.
Last week, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on members of the alliance to provide more aircraft to bomb Gaddafi’s forces in order to protect Libyan civilians and to enforce a no-fly zone.
The internal U.S. government debate over Libya was renewed after rebel leaders on July 15 won recognition as the legitimate government of Libya from the United States and other world powers, the official said.
While sending more Predator drones may aid the Libya operation, U.S. commanders are sensitive about pulling assets away from other missions, particularly in Afghanistan.
Some U.S. military officials have also previously been wary about arming the rebels, with one senior commander warning that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stated that it sought to aid Libya’s opposition.
So far, U.S. military aid to Libya’s rebels has been limited to nonlethal support, providing things like food rations and uniforms.
Diplomatic efforts to find a solution have intensified as the fighting drags on.
Gaddafi on Thursday ruled out talks with the rebels seeking to end his 41-year-rule, casting doubt on a flurry of Western efforts to negotiate an end to the deepening civil conflict. [ID:nL6E7IL21G] (Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Mohammad Zargham)