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U.S. shows flag in Tripoli, pledges support

Sep 14, 2011, 9:27 a.m.
Jeffrey D. Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, meets with Mostafa Abdel Jalil (R), Chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council interim government at office of the Islamic Call Society in Tripoli September 14, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili

By Joseph Logan and Alexander Dziadosz

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The United States gave Libya's new rulers a very visible show of support on Wednesday when a senior envoy visited the capital and praised their efforts to assert control of armed groups three weeks after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.

Washington has taken a back seat to France and Britain in NATO-led air strikes that helped the ragtag rebel coalition take Tripoli last month. And, wary of a backlash after their military takeovers in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials are at pains to avoid seeming to take control of oil-rich Libya.

But the visit of Jeffrey Feltman put an American accent firmly in the center of a Tripoli recovering from six months of civil war. The State Department's top Middle East diplomat assured interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil of continued NATO support and played down fears of a hostile Islamist takeover.

Putting a spotlight on the U.S. role in what is seen so far in the West as a successful intervention comes at a welcome time for the Obama administration as it grapples with complex problems elsewhere in the Middle East.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, glad for a fillip to his re-election campaign from helping topple Gaddafi, is expected to visit Tripoli in person soon.

Western powers, which had reconciled with Gaddafi in recent years, are now competing with each other and with the likes of China and Russia for the favor of his successors, looking for trade deals on oil and gas and a share of building contracts.

Feltman said Washington remained committed to NATO and Gulf Arab air operations to thwart any threats to civilians, as Gaddafi's fugitive spokesman renewed claims that the ousted strongman was still in the country and rallying his forces for a fightback in several stubborn loyalist bastions.

Feltman also praised Abdel Jalil's National Transitional Council (NTC) for progress toward bringing the army, police and a host of local and partisan militias under its control.

Foreign powers are worried about the risk of anarchy after 42 years of Gaddafi's eccentric personal rule at odds with much of the world. The European Union on Wednesday demanded an end to arbitrary killings and detentions by both sides and especially to attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans, who are widely accused of having fought for Gaddafi.

ARMED GROUPS

Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, said: "We remain encouraged by growing command and control over security and police forces. We understand that this is a difficult task.

"Libya's interim leadership is solidifying the steps and integrating militias under one civilian authority."

Asked about the strength of Islamist groups in the rebel coalition which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi last month, he said: "We are not concerned that one group will be able to dominate the aftermath of what has been a shared struggle."

He also said he expected the new rulers in Tripoli to "share concerns about terrorism" with Washington. Some senior Islamists among the rebel forces have in the past been allied with enemies of the United States, though they have since welcomed cooperation with the Western military alliance.

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