* Western powers discuss arms supplies
* Obama OKs covert help
* Once in power, rebels could rue Western help
By William Maclean, Security Correspondent
LONDON, March 31 (Reuters) - More Western military help may strengthen Libyan rebels on the battlefield but at the price of a propaganda boost for Muammar Gaddafi, quick to portray his foes as lackeys of the West.
Mindful of the importance of the information war in Libya’s conflict, opposition leaders desperate for foreign weapons will have to take care not to create an image of subservience to Western powers in the event their request is met, analysts say.
Militarily vulnerable on the ground and dependent on Western-led patrols in the air, the rebels’ main card is their status as the spearhead of an authentic, homegrown uprising against Gaddafi’s long rule.
“There is a very fine line for the rebels,” said independent U.S. analyst Geoff Porter. “The more they seem to be the proxies of the U.S. and Europe trying to oust Gaddafi, the less organic and legitimate their movement becomes.”
Western nations conducting air strikes to shield civilians are also discussing possibly arming the rebels. Government officials told Reuters in Washington that President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorising covert U.S. government support for the rebel forces.
Earlier uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia faced no such problem. There, autocrats were removed by largely peaceful uprisings with nothing more than Western diplomatic backing.
But in Libya, a violent crackdown by Gaddafi, and a lack of big defections by army units, compelled the opposition to turn itself into an armed force and seek Western military support.
The move put them in a dilemma: Any notion they are becoming Western puppets might be damaging in the struggle for hearts and minds in the wider Arab world, where misgivings are growing about Western air strikes.
At home it could stir nationalist feelings and possibly erode support for the rebels even among civilians with good reason to wish Gaddafi gone.
“If this turns out to be a protracted conflict there is somewhat of a political risk in Western support. Gaddafi could portray himself as a new Omar al-Mukhtar,” said north Africa expert Larbi Sadiki, referring to a Libyan anti-colonial resistance leader hanged by Italian officials in 1931.
Gaddafi lost no time in attacking the rebels over Western ties after the coalition began air strikes in support of a no fly zone, saying on March 20 that the rebels were “traitors who cooperate with America and the crusader alliance.”
On the face of it, the allegation was an outlandish reversal of his earlier charge that the opposition was in fact an agent of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda militant group.
But a charge of being a servant of Western interests could hurt the rebels politically, especially if the West sends in trainers and ramps up air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces.
If the rebels did take power, they would be vulnerable to the charge that they owed everything to Western might.
Richard Holmes, professor of political and security studies at Cranfield University, said any notion that Western warplanes were in effect “the rebel air force” would hurt the opposition.
“It could become difficult for the rebels to claim moral authority once in power,” he said.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told Reuters on March 22 that Western forces were more interested in helping rebels advance than protecting civilians.
“That’s the problem now we are seeing, the coalition forces they are part of the war against the legitimate government... “They are helping one party against the other which is illegal.”
The rebels are acutely aware of the risk of Western ties, with some fighters saying they would turn their guns on any Western troops who set foot on Libyan soil.
But ties between the rebels and Western powers deepened very publicly this week when representatives of the transitional rebel Libyan National Council met Western and Arab foreign ministers at a meeting in London to discuss Libya’s future.
Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebels, told reporters at the gathering that if the rebels had more weapons “we would finish Gaddafi in a few days”.
The United States and Britain have not ruled out arms supplies, and analysts say this suggests such a move is on the cards. While Arab arms supplies and Arab trainers might be an alternative, the prospects for that are not at all clear.
Alex Warren, a director of Britain’s FrontierMea business research company, said world powers were now deciding whether to move from a protective stance under a U.N resolution mandating protection of civilians “to an aggressive one where they take sides and arm the rebels. That is quite a big shift,” he said.
“If Libyan people see that the outside intervention has moved from a protective one to an aggressive one, their opinion might shift against foreign intervention and against the people who are calling for it,” he said.
George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University, said that for the moment the international coalition operation was beginning to look like a Western intervention.
“I think the opposition is going to suffer for that, if and when they take power,” he said. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)