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Obama hopes resurgent Libyan opposition can topple Gadhafi

By the CNN Wire Staff
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One-on-one with President Obama
  • President gives an exclusive interview to CNN's Spanish-language network
  • Gadhafi could "hunker down" in the face of a no-fly zone, Obama concedes
  • The president cites the humanitarian goals of the military mission

San Salvador, El Salvador (CNN) -- President Barack Obama on Tuesday expressed hope that Libya's opposition movement, given new protection by a U.S.-led military mission, can organize itself to revive broad enthusiasm for political change and oust Moammar Gadhafi from power.

In a 13-minute interview with CNN's Spanish-language network, Obama said the immediate goal of the U.N.-sanctioned military mission that began Saturday was to prevent an onslaught of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi by Gadhafi's military.

"Because the international community rallied, his troops have now pulled back from Benghazi," Obama said.

Now the United States and its coalition partners, including NATO allies and Arab states, are establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, with U.S. forces taking out Gadhafi's air defense systems, Obama said.

He conceded that Gadhafi could "hunker down and wait it out even in the face of a no-fly zone, even though his forces have been degraded."

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"Our hope is that the first thing that happens once we clear this space is that the rebels start discussing how they're able to organize themselves, how they articulate their aspirations for the Libyan people," Obama said.

"Potentially what we may see is all the enthusiasm that the Libyan people had for a change in government that was occurring a few weeks ago," but was brutally repressed by Gadhafi, can now resurface, the president said.

In particular, Obama said he hoped that the Libyan people decide it was time for a change that ends up sweeping Gadhafi from power.

The president acknowledged the irony of being a Nobel Peace Prize winner who ordered the U.S. military into action on the eight anniversary of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but said the goal in this case was humanitarian.

"I'm accustomed to this contradiction of being both a commander-in-chief but also somebody who aspires to peace," Obama said, adding the Libya mission was to protect the Libyan people from Gadhafi's military.

"We're not invading a country; we are not acting alone," he said. "We are acting under a mandate issued by the U.N. Security Council."

The American people will see no contradiction between someone who believes in peace and "who wants to make sure people aren't butchered because of a dictator who wants to cling to power,"Obama added.

Speaking in El Salvador on the final leg of a three-nation Latin American trip that included stops in Brazil and Chile, Obama also cited what he called a new relationship between the United States and the region to the south.

He noted that an area once known for dictatorships and coups now featured democratic governments that were less focused on political ideology and more focused on results in helping their people.

"That's the kind of partner we want," Obama said, describing the relationship as a "two-way street" based on mutual respect, interests and trust, rather than the old model of underdeveloped nations approaching the United States with "hat in hand."

Asked about immigration reform back home, Obama said he would again make the push for a comprehensive bill.

"I'm going to need some help," he said. "I can get the majority of Democrats to support it. I need some help from Republicans."

With last year's census results showing a growing Hispanic population in the United States, Obama said Republicans will have a hard time winning future elections if they focus on anti-immigration sentiment.