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President Obama said Thursday that he had ordered plans giving the U.S. military “full capacity to act, potentially rapidly,” in Libya if the situation there deteriorates.

“I don’t want us hamstrung,” Obama said. He cited the possibility of a humanitarian crisis, or “a situation in which defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger,” or “a stalemate that over time could be bloody” if Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi continues to resist international demands that he step down.

Gaddafi “has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave,” the president said.

But in his first public statement on Libya since the outbreak of widespread armed conflict between opposition forces and those loyal to Gaddafi, Obama expressed several notes of caution, stressing that the United States must act only “in consultation . . . with the international community.”

“The region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history,” Obama said at a White House news conference with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderon. As with Egypt and Tunisia, he said, U.S. interests were best served if the United States was not seen as engineering or imposing a particular outcome.

Having raised the possibility of establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, and after moving warships into the Mediterranean, the United States and its allies appeared Thursday to step back from military intervention, even as opposition forces in Libya continued to call for assistance from foreign air power.

fter their unexpected victory Wednesday over well-armed Gaddafi forces in the oil port of Brega, rebel fighters regrouped to bury their dead and to lay plans to carry the fight toward Tripoli, Libya‘s embattled capital.

Brega was hit Thursday by at least three powerful airstrikes, while rebels clashed with Gaddafi loyalists in the nearby Mediterranean town of Bishra. In Tripoli, there were signs of the government cracking down in an attempt to thwart plans for street protests after Friday prayers.

Activists in Benghazi, the eastern city that serves as the rebel capital, were calling for a million people to protest, but little independent information emerged from Tripoli, where Gaddafi has asserted his apparent control in at least two public appearances surrounded by cheering supporters.

Meanwhile, at least some international leaders appeared chastened by warnings from their military forces that intervention would be complicated and fraught with uncertainty. Although the United States, Britain, France, Canada and others have indicated they would participate, if conditions warranted, Italy and Germany, among others, have said they would not.

At the United Nations and at NATO headquarters, diplomats and officials said that no decisions were pending and that no meetings were scheduled to discuss options on Libya.

“We’re not proposing a no-fly zone. We’re simply proposing the planning,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC. “None of these options are pain-free or simple.”