The move came as U.S. allies stepped up their aid to the rebels, with Britain, France, and Italy sending military advisers amid calls for the United States to offer direct assistance outside its participation in NATO military operations. France and Italy have recognized the Transitional National Council as Libya's legitimate government, something the United States has yet to do.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Obama was aware of the allies' decision to send in advisers "and hopes - believes - that it will help the opposition. But it does not at all change the president's policy on no boots on the ground for American troops."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recommended that Obama authorize the nonlethal assistance, said the aid would support the council and "our efforts to protect civilians and the civilian populated areas that are under threat of attack from their own government in Libya." She said the aid "will be drawn down from items already in government stocks that correspond with the needs that we have heard from the Transitional National Council."
Congress was notified in writing of the plan late last week and was briefed in greater detail Tuesday by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, officials said.
Initially, the administration proposed supplying the rebels with vehicles and portable fuel-storage tanks, but those items were dropped Wednesday from the list of potential aid over concerns that those could be converted into offensive military assets, the officials said.
The list is still being revised, but now covers items such as medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, personal protective gear, radios, and meals, the officials said. Most of the items are expected to come from Pentagon stocks, they said.
"This is not a blank check," Clinton told reporters, adding that the move was consistent with the U.N. mandate that authorized international action to protect civilians and acknowledging that the opposition is in dire need of help.
"This opposition, which has held its own against a brutal assault by the Gadhafi forces, was not an organized militia," she said. "It was not a group that had been planning to oppose the rule of Gadhafi for years. It was a spontaneous response within the context of the broader Arab spring. These are mostly businesspeople, students, lawyers, doctors, professors who have very bravely moved to defend their communities and to call for an end to the regime in Libya."
Gadhafi's forces have intensified their assault on Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, firing tank shells and rockets into residential areas, according to witnesses and human-rights groups. NATO commanders have conceded that their airpower was limited in its ability to protect civilians in a city - the core mission of the international air campaign.
France vowed Wednesday to step up air strikes and acknowledged that it has military officers already working with Libyan rebels on the ground. Italy joined Britain in announcing their commitment of military instructors to train the rebels.
Gadhafi's government has come under sharp international criticism for its assault on Misrata and been accused by human-rights groups of using heavy weapons, including shells, missiles, and cluster bombs. Such bombs can cause indiscriminate casualties and have been banned by many countries.
Libyan officials have persistently denied the army was shelling Misrata or using cluster bombs. "We welcome any objective investigation of the actions of our army, our government, and our officials," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. He said the international community should "not listen to media reports or stories fabricated by the rebels."
The United Nation's top human-rights official, Navi Pillay, said Libyan government forces might be committing war crimes by using heavy weapons against civilians in Misrata. She said Gadhafi's troops should be aware that International Criminal Court would scrutinize their actions.
At 45-bed Hilal Hospital in Misrata, three bodies were brought in Wednesday, along with 12 people who were severely wounded and about 25 others with lesser injuries, physician Mohammed al-Fagieh said. That's about normal these days, he added.
Human-rights activists have said more than 260 people have been killed in Misrata, with the final toll likely higher, and many more wounded.
NATO Brig. Gen. Mark van Uhm said from the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, that his forces had destroyed more than 40 tanks and several armored personnel carriers in Misrata, but that there was concern of harming civilians.
'Restrepo' Codirector Killed
Two Western photojournalists - including an Oscar-nominated film director - were killed Wednesday in the besieged city of Misrata while covering battles between rebels and Libyan government forces. Two others working alongside them were wounded.
Tim Hetherington, 40, codirector of the 2010 documentary Restrepo, about U.S. soldiers on an outpost in Afghanistan, was killed inside the only rebel-held city in western Libya, said his publicist, Johanna Ramos Boyer. The city has been under weeks of shelling by government troops.
Hetherington tweeted Tuesday: "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO."
Chris Hondros, 41, a New York photographer for Getty Images, was also killed.
The two other photographers - Guy Martin, a Briton working with the Panos photo agency, and Michael Christopher Brown - were treated for shrapnel wounds, doctors said.
Hetherington was born in Liverpool, England, and studied at Oxford University. He was known for his gutsy ability to capture conflict zones on film.
Hondros covered wars since the late 1990s, including those in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His awards included World Press Photo honors and the Robert Capa Gold Medal, one of the highest prizes in war photography.
- Associated Press