WASHINGTON - (AP) - President Barack Obama said Friday that ano-fly zone over Libya to keep Col. Moammar Gadhafi from attackingrebels remains a possibility as "we are slowly tightening thenoose" around the Libyan leader. But he stopped short of movingtoward military action.
"The bottom line is: I have not taken any actions off the tableat this point," Obama told a White House news conference.
He cited actions already taken, including new sanctions and thefreezing of tens billions of dollars of Gadhafi's assets.
"It is in the United States' interest, and in the interests ofthe people of Libya that Gadhafi leave," Obama said. "We're goingto take a wide range of actions" to try to accomplish that goal,he added.
Obama said he wanted to make it clear to the longtime Libyanleaders "that the world is watching" his brutal response to therebellions in his country.
The president brushed off a comment on Thursday in congressionaltestimony by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapperthat Gadhafi's military was stronger than has been described andthat "in the longer term ... the regime will prevail."
"He was making a hard-headed assessment about militarycapability," Obama said. "I don't think anybody disputes thatGadhafi has more firepower than the opposition. He wasn't making astatement of policy."
Obama added: "I believe Gadhafi is on the wrong side ofhistory. I believe the Libyan people are anxious for freedom. Weare going to be in contact with the opposition as well as inconsultation with the international community" in an effort topressure Gadhafi to leave.
The president also said the United States and other nations havean obligation to prevent any repetition of the type of massacresthat occurred in the Balkans or in Rwanda.
Obama opened his news conference with comments on thedevastating Japanese earthquake and on recent rises in the price ofgasoline, driven by instability in the Middle East and growingdemand for fuel as the world emerges from a deep, long recession.
He said he had talked to Japan's prime minister to extend U.S.condolences and an offer of help. He said the quake and tsunamiwere "potentially catastrophic" for Japan and "a reminder ofjust how fragile life can be."
As for possible danger to the U.S. from the tsunami that sweptacross the Pacific, past Hawaii and to the West Coast, Obama saidthe government was taking the situation "very seriously andmonitoring it closely."
He said that, even though there had been reports of damage atseveral Japanese nuclear plants, the Japanese prime minister toldhim that no radiation leaks had been detected.
As for gasoline prices and oil supplies, Obama said, "Here athome, everybody should know, if the situation demands it, we areprepared to tap" into the nation's petroleum reserves, located insalt caverns in Texas and Louisiana on the Gulf Coast. Some membersof Congress from both parties have called for the president to takesome of the oil to help hold down prices.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established in response tothe Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974. It was most recently tapped inSeptember 2008 in response to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
"In an economy that relies on oil, gas prices affect everybody.Families feel the pinch every time they fill up the tank," Obamasaid. Still, he said the country was in a better shape to handle adisruption in oil supplies now than in the past.
"Our economy as a whole is more efficient. We're producing moreoil and we're importing less," he said.
Gasoline prices generally rise as the weather turns warmer andpeople drive more. With prices now averaging above $3.50 a gallon,some experts have predicted $4 a gallon gas this summer.
Still, he said he believed the U.S. economy was on a "positivetrack" and "we're moving slowly but surely" into a period ofsustained job growth. Unemployment was 8.9 percent in February.
Obama said the latest unemployment report had shown stronggrowth for private business. "Where you lost jobs was in state andlocal government," he said, adding that the federal government hadbeen able to cushion some of those losses over the past two years.
"But now states are continuing to cut, local governments arebeginning to cut," he said. "Our long term debt and deficits arenot caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom," hesaid, a slap at the spending cut bill that Republicans pushedthrough the House.
Obama said Democrats and Republicans will have to compromise on"prudent" spending cuts as they attempt to resolve differences inlegislation intended to keep the government running. But he said hewould oppose cuts to education programs that were included in aHouse Republican measure that the Senate rejected this week.