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McCain: Libyan rebels seek U.S. recognition, might pay for war costs
Sen. John McCain, the highest-ranking American official to visit Libya during its current uprising, says Libyan rebels desperately want formal recognition by the United States -- and might be willing to reimburse America's costs in the military operation against strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
"They want recognition badly," says McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, speaking by phone from Egypt after wrapping up a brief visit to the Benghazi area. "One of the reasons they want recognition so badly is, if they were recognized, it would help them get access to that $30 billion in Gadhafi assets that have been frozen. The other thing is, if they got their recognition, it would also free up other ways for them to get some short-term financial help."
In late February, the Treasury Department froze $30 billion in Libyan assets in the United States in an effort to squeeze Gadhafi financially. The struggling rebel government would love to have some of that. "They are short of money," McCain says. "They need to pay for their military activities and they need to pay for the government. It's a very heavily subsidized country, and if they did away with those subsidies in Benghazi, they'd have significant unrest."
McCain says that in talks with opposition leaders, he brought up the possibility of the rebels' paying the United States for the many millions of dollars already spent on the Libyan operation. "I reminded them that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia reimbursed us after Operation Desert Storm," McCain says. "They said they'd be glad to discuss that." Although the rebels are low on cash now, Libya has significant oil wealth; before the war began, its production was about 1.6 billion barrels per day.
McCain, perhaps the most vocal supporter of the Libyan war in all if the U.S. government, says he was impressed by his meetings with rebel leaders. "They're very good people," he says. "Mainly well-educated, a number of women in the [Transitional National Council] -- very normal, dedicated people."
"But you've got to remember that they've never had a political party in Libya," McCain adds. "Never had a political party. So to say the least, it's a very steep learning curve."
McCain dismissed concerns that rebel forces include some veterans of al Qaeda. "I'm sure that there may be some element there, but I guarantee you that they didn't rise up because they wanted to be al Qaeda fighters," McCain says. "They rose up because they wanted to throw off the yoke of Gadhafi, the same way that people in Egypt rose up and the same way that people in Syria are rising up. It's not because they're al Qaeda extremists, it's that their tired of being governed by an extremist who doesn’t hesitate to massacre them."
McCain became impatient when reminded of a 2007 report which found that Libya, and specifically Benghazi, had been a source of insurgents who traveled to Iraq to fight American forces there. "Look, that's not why the Libyans rose up," McCain emphasizes. "It's not an al Qaeda- led insurrection. These are ordinary citizens who wanted to get rid of Gadhafi, who was one of the more brutal dictators in the region. I don't think they're any more al Qaeda-inspired than what's going on in Syria, or what went on in Egypt, or what went on in Tunisia…This wasn't fomented by al Qaeda, it was fomented by chance who saw a chance, an opportunity, for a much better life. They hate Gadhafi. They hate Gadhafi with a passion that is hard to describe. And it isn't because they're al Qaeda, it's because they are citizens who want freedom and democracy."
McCain saw most of the top opposition leadership during his brief stay in Libya. He met with Transitional National Council [TNC] head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, as well as with Ali Tarhouni, the former professor who runs TNC economic policy. He met with British military advisers and toured a rebel military facility. He also met with human rights groups, and went to Al Jalaa hospital, where he saw doctors and patients from the siege in Misurata. It's clear that when McCain returns to Washington -- after stops in Egypt, Oman, Qatar, France, and Italy -- he will be an even more forceful advocate of a stepped-up American presence in the Libyan war.
But he may make little headway. While President Obama has famously declared that Moammar Gadhafi must go, he is absolutely opposed to using U.S. military force to oust the Libyan leader. There are enormous doubts about the rebels' military capabilities and the amount of training and arms assistance that would be required for them to prevail. And then there is the continuing reluctance of a divided NATO to go beyond the relatively modest Operation Unified Protector effort currently underway. Although he remains opposed to American ground forces in Libya, McCain wants more American planes, more American bombs, more American missiles, more American money, and more American assistance for the Libyan rebels. Whether he'll succeed is not at all clear.
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