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U.S. has an enduring commitment to supporting the Libyan people
as they chart their own future
U.S. Assistant Secretary Jeffrey D. Feltman's Briefing
on Travel to Libya:
Jeffrey D. Feltman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
September 14, 2011
MR. TONER: Thank you very much. And thanks to all of you for
joining us on short notice. As I mentioned at my – at the
daily press briefing just a few moments ago, Assistant Secretary
of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was in Tripoli
today. He’s now left Tripoli, but he was there for the
entire day and had some meetings and toured the chancery and
did some other things.
Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Jeff, with just
a reminder that this is an on-the-record briefing. And without
further ado, Jeff.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Okay. Thanks, Mark. As Mark said,
I basically spent the entire today in Tripoli, along with our
staff there on the ground. And let me just first run through
the people I saw so you have a sense of what I did during the
We saw TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Separately, we saw
TNC – the prime minister equivalent, Mahmoud Jibril. We
also saw the deputy prime minister, who’s also the economy
and finance minister and the oil minister, Ali Tarhouni. We were
with the minister of justice, Alagi. And we also saw the minister
of health, Naji Barakat. Those were the official meetings that
we had with TNC officials.
We also had a civil society roundtable, where I was able to
talk to people who were – ranging from student activists
to professional people who were working on relief activities,
to sort of give their views of how they see the way forward in
Libya and the opportunities they see arising out of the revolution
I also toured what remains of our old Embassy, which was a sad
event because I had been fortunate enough to visit that site
over the course of the past few years and to see how we had developed
it into a fully functioning Embassy, and it’s pretty well
But to balance that was a real highlight, which is to see our
local staff, who in some cases were seeing each other for the
first time since the revolution started. They gathered together
in a town hall we had with our local staff, basically embracing
each other. And it was nice to have our Embassy family reunited.
Of course, the messages that I was bringing to the Libyans was
that we – oh, I’m sorry. Just one I – part
I dropped off is we also visited the Tripoli Medical Center with
the health minister and several doctors where we had the chance
to visit with some of the people who had been injured during
the battle for Tripoli, people who had tried to raise the flag
of the revolution and had been shot by snipers, things like that.
As I started to say, the message I had for the Libyan officials
was threefold. One, we respect Libya’s sovereignty. Going
forward, we want to work within the context of Libya’s
sovereignty and Libya’s independence. Second, the United
States and our international partners do have an enduring commitment
to supporting the Libyan people as they chart their own future.
And third, we want to build a broad relationship with Libya based
on mutual respect and shared interests. Those were sort of the
highlights of the message I was giving.
But of course, there were a lot of things that we discussed
within the context of those messages, such as the need for turning
a lot of very positive language from the TNC on human rights,
on respecting minorities, respecting the rights of those who
aren’t Libyans, who happen to be in Libya, into real action
on the ground, making sure that the very positive language about
women playing a leadership role in a new Libya, are translated
into practice. And we also were able to discuss the meeting we
hope to have next week among a Friends of Libya group, what the
Libyans would like to see come out of that meeting in New York.
Those are sort of the contours of the day. Now, just make a
note. Tripoli, which I visited several times since 2008, is remarkably
normal in atmosphere. I mean, not that I can say that I saw all
parts of the city in a one-day visit, but stores are open, traffic
is flowing, police are on the street. The public institutions
are functioning with the people who bring the coffee in. The
water is back on. Electricity is flowing. We went to a hotel
for a meeting and people were in the lobby having coffee. There’s
a real sense of normalcy in Tripoli that one certainly didn’t
have immediately, say, in – when Qadhafi’s troops
left Benghazi. You don’t see the type of looting of public
institutions, security buildings, that you saw in Benghazi. And
there was one thing that the TNC was very conscious about – a
lesson learned from the Benghazi liberation – was to make
sure that there were messages sent out to protect the state institutions
for the future of Libya. And it’s something that seemed
to work quite well.
Frankly, the only destroyed or damaged things that we saw were
driving by Qadhafi’s old compound, and also the U.S. Embassy.
But with that, I’ll open it up to questions.
OPERATOR: At this time, if you’d like to ask a question,
please press *1. You will be announced prior to asking your question.
To withdraw your question, press *2. Once again, at this time,
if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1.
Elise Labott, CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, Jeff. Thanks for doing this. I was just wondering,
in your meetings – obviously you know the leadership pretty
well, having met them several times. But today, some kind of
senior Defense officials were briefing reporters and said that
while there’s obviously confidence in the leaders themselves,
and they’ve gone to great lengths to kind of disassociate – associate
themselves with the kind of policies that you’re looking – that
there’s not, like, a full understanding of what the, quote/unquote, “TNC” is
and whether there are extremists or whether there are just going
to be some cracks within kind of feudal problems between east
and west, between loyalists versus rebels, and loyalists that
joined at the last minute. I mean that everyone agreed on the
need to get rid of Qadhafi, but now the future is far from – uncertain,
even while you kind of celebrate all of their achievements. And
I was just wondering what you thought of that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Well, Elise, I think you put your
finger on what everyone’s talking about, which is yes,
they did have – everyone came together with one goal, which
was to get rid of Qadhafi, to have a different future for Libya.
And a lot of diverse trends came together in support of that
goal. And now they’re trying to figure out what’s
the best way forward. But it’s worth keeping in mind that
that goal hasn’t yet been achieved. There still is fighting
going on. There’s a large triangle of the country formed
by Sabha, Bani Walid, and Sirte, where the TNC has been (inaudible)
transfer, turn over those cities. The Qadhafi forces have refused
and kept the fighting up, so that one goal hasn’t yet been
QUESTION: Right. But is that the one thing keeping these guys
on the same page?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Yeah, but I guess, to be honest,
I left Tripoli today somewhat encouraged by how they’re
dealing with the differences among them, because there are different
trends in terms of how they see the way forward.
But these discussions, for example, that we would hear a month
or two ago about, oh, these deep divisions between east and west
don’t seem to be playing out in any sort of dangerous way.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil went to Martyr Square on September 12th and
gave a speech that was wildly popular and that we heard from
all parties today was just exactly the right type of speech forward.
So it wasn’t the people of Tripoli reacting and saying,
oh, this guy is out from the east and he’s come to the
west as a conqueror. No, he was – his speech was received
in the spirit in which it was intended, which was as a unifying
We heard today broad support for the basic outline of what the
TNC has put forward, which is sort of a consolidation for now,
leading to elections in a period of about 8 months from now.
So the people saw that they’re going to be able to play
out their political differences through the ballot box and have
time to prepare for that. I really did leave today feeling as
though the question of East versus West, the question of Islamists
versus non-Islamists, the question of Tripoli versus the rest
of the country, are being discussed in a way that one would expect
to be discussed in a (inaudible) democratic aspirations as being
discussed in sort of a positive way, rather than a fearful way.
And I, frankly, saw a change from when I was in Benghazi only
about three or four weeks ago, where there was still a lot of
fear about what did the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis mean
about unity for Libya going forward? There was much more of a
sense of confidence today that, while these differences definitely
exist, they can be worked out in a peaceful way, and not from
fighting on the street.
QUESTION: Thanks, Jeff.
MR. TONER: Next question.
OPERATOR: Kim Ghattas, BBC.
QUESTION: Jeff, hi. Thanks for doing this. When it comes to
the actual fighting that is still going on and the fact that,
as you point out, Qadhafi has still not been found, to what extent
do you think that this could undermine progress in the rest of
the country? I mean, if the fighting continues, could that create
further tensions? Could we see a sort of low-level insurgency
develop in the country? Is that a concern?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: It certainly is a concern of some
of the TNC leaders, which – what – they recognize
the risk, they know that they have a long border that’s
very hard to secure, that – and no one knows where Qadhafi
is. No one knows how much money he has access to. But what I
found really curious, Kim, and actually it surprised me, was
meeting with civil society, talking to various officials, talking
to people in the hospital, it’s almost as though Qadhafi’s
become irrelevant. It’s as if we have moved on, beyond
Qadhafi. Now, this doesn’t include the TNC officials who
are worried about the very that you’re talking about. But
in terms of the people who we met today, to the extent that they’re
representative of the city or the country as a whole, Qadhafi
is already part of the past, which I found interesting. So it
seems as though, yes, there’s a risk that the TNC recognizes
that you can’t declare that the country’s fully liberated
until Qadhafi is apprehended, until the danger to Libya’s
civilians is ended across the board, but politically he’s
QUESTION: But just a quick follow-up, I mean, do you think that
he still has the capacity to do damage, or is he hunkered down
in a hole unable to give any orders to any fighters anymore?
I mean, is it still possible for him to unleash some violence?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think it’s possible for
him to be a nuisance and unleash violence in a way that (inaudible)
drive, for example, on the coastal road right now because Sirte
is still in his hands. But I don’t see any possibility,
based on what we saw now, of him reversing what the TNC and the
Libyan people have gained.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks.
MR. TONER: Next question.
OPERATOR: Jennifer Griffin, Fox News.
QUESTION: Hi Jeff, thanks for doing this. I’m wondering,
I would like to get your assessment of Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Do
you think he is still a danger, does he – are you still
concerned that he may have connections to al-Qaida?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Jennifer, I – you’re
going to have to ask people in Washington who are much more steeped
in the – his history than I am. What I can say is that
I think it’s very positive that the TNC has now established
a political presence for the interim period in Tripoli because
it has changed the debate on the whole question of Abdul Hakim
Belhadj, the Islamists, the militias or what they call the – what
the Libyans prefer to call the Revolutionary Brigade. Because
now people are talking about all of this subject in a political
context which just a few weeks ago you had this question about,
well, was he going to take Tripoli? Was this brigade going to
be able to rule Tripoli? And that seems to be (inaudible) table.
What people are talking about is how best to organize the Revolutionary
Brigades, the militias, and security services.
What we were hearing today, for example, was a debate about
a new ruling that the militias have accepted, which is that they’ll
come under a centralized command structure that reports up to
the TNC, not the executive body headed by Mahmoud Jibril but
the actual sort of quasi (inaudible) representative body. People
were discussing was it good or bad to have them report to the
TNC rather than to the executive body, the cabinet. Well, this
is sort of a healthy debate, in my view. It’s a debate
for the Libyans themselves to work out but it suggests to me
that this question that people were asking themselves as recently
as just a couple weeks ago, is Abdul Hakim emerging as some militia
leader that’s going to control Tripoli, that that’s – that
the answer to that question is no because now you have a political
process and you’re having a debate over what kind of civilian
reporting chain the militias will report to.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, Jeff.
MR. TONER: Next question.
OPERATOR: Andrea Mitchell, NBC News.
QUESTION: Hi Jeff. Thanks for doing this.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Hi, Andrea.
QUESTION: I had a question about the reporting in The New York
Times yesterday about the women. I’m wondering, when you
were on the ground, whether you have talked to women leaders
who are active, and whether they are being shut out in ways that
we saw, frankly, in Afghanistan, where the Secretary had to intervene
on one of her trips, and we’ve seen elsewhere in Egypt,
where being active in many ways has not borne fruit in terms
of being included in the political process.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Andrea, this goes back to something
I said in the introductory comments, and thanks for raising this.
Mustafa Abdul Jalil has repeated the commitment that he understands
that women in Libya played an important role in the revolution
and that women in Libya have to play an important role in Libya’s
future. I think he’s sincere. When he gave the speech in
Martyr Square on September 12th, he had – he proclaimed
that women will be ambassadors, women will be ministers. And
the women in the square, from what I’ve heard from everyone,
just went wild with applause. And so I think that he’s
sincere in recognizing the role that women must play in a new
Libya. What we were focused on with him was how to translate
that sincerity – not questioning his sincerity, but how
to translate that sincerity into action because, frankly, there
aren’t many women faces that you see in the hallways of
the TNC structure. And this was something that is of concern
to us, is of concern to others. And certainly the Secretary of
State raised it when she saw Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Mahmoud
Jibril in Paris on September 1st.
When we met with the civil society reps, they were at least
50 percent women. There may have been more. And they were really
impressive, dynamic women who were in law, who were in education,
who were in health, who have something to contribute to this
future of Libya. And the Secretary (inaudible) is going to realize
its potential if 50 percent of the country is left out of the
decision making. And this is a point that we are talking about
to the TNC members all the time. Again, I don’t doubt the
sincerity of the leadership here, but the sincerity needs to
be translated into something that people can see that the words
that Mustafa Abdul Jalil delivered to the women of Libya on the
12th of September are translated into action.
QUESTION: Well, just to follow up, it seems to me that – and
certainly to them – that they are achieving every step
diplomatically, they’re getting the money from all quarters.
What enforcement or pressure can be placed on them along the
way for them to deliver on these promises?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I mean, they are an interim authority,
and an interim authority has a lot to worry about right now.
It also has to set an example to start setting the course off
in the right direction for the future. And this is one of those
issues where we are going to keep talking and we are going to
keep using our diplomatic means, our pressure, in order to drive
home this point.
I really think that they want to do the right thing. And in
this and in so many other matters, as the dust settles on the
actual fighting, this is an issue which they need to take up.
And we will keep reminding them that they need to do so.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Jeff.
MR. TONER: Thank you. Time for just a couple more questions.
OPERATOR: Mina al-Oraibi.
QUESTION: Hi, this is Mina. Thanks so much for doing this, Jeff.
I had a question related to the previous one, this time about
Sub-Saharan refugees and migrants, and the worries about racial
attacks. I know that you’ve expressed concern before about
this, but what sorts of promises did you get from the TNC and
Libyan leadership to face this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I mean, let me just start off by
just echoing what we all know, which is that there is no excuse
for detention based on ethnicity, based on national origin; there’s
no excuse for violence, for blatant discrimination, based on
these sorts of things. And it’s a message that we are delivering
pretty strongly to the TNC.
They talked a lot about this today. They recognize that there
has been a problem. They believe that they’re getting a
handle on it, that they are putting into place the right sorts
of orders, that they are putting in place the right methods for
accountability to stop this. But they recognize that they have
a problem and the problem affects, basically, their reputation.
This is a problem that is a contrast to all the lofty words that
they have about the new Libya that they’re building.
I will – we encourage them to think about a number of
mechanisms. This has to be a Libyan solution to this, a Libyan
solution by which Libya is standing up to international standards
of decency, of human rights. Like for example, now that they’re
looking at reforming the cabinet for this interim period, how
is – where is human rights going to fall? Will it be a
separate ministry? Is there a separate commission that reports
to the prime minister or to the chairman? There are a number
of mechanisms that they can do to make sure that the information
about any abuses gets to the leadership right away so that they
can take action to address them.
We talked about a lot of things. Again, this will have to be
a Libyan solution, not an imposed-from-outside solution. But
there are international standards, international practices, international
norms, that need to be followed in these cases.
MR. TONER: And this will be the last question.
OPERATOR: Oren Dorell, USA Today.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, thanks for taking the question. I wanted
to ask you a little bit about this issue of the Islamists among
the rebels, and not only on the TNC and the militia leaders but
lower down. What’s being discussed in terms of how to counter
them and reduce their influence?
And also, what’s being discussed in terms of – is
there anything being discussed in terms of military training
or assistance to block any outside radicals like al-Qaida that
might come in and try to stir up trouble and launch attacks from
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think that was a lot of – everyone’s
concern about how al-Qaida tries to exploit uncertainty and chaos
wherever they can, and Libya would be no exception to that. But
al-Qaida’s ideology right now doesn’t seem to have
much resonance among the people of Libya. I think al-Qaida ideologically
is probably on the run here, given the fact that the – what
the Libyans seem to be aspiring for is a quite different society
than what al-Qaida would represent.
Now, in terms of – it’s worth remembering that Libya
is a really conservative place. It is largely a very religiously
devout population and also very heavily tribalist, as many of
you have pointed out in some of the pieces you’ve written
about Libya over the past several months. And it’s sort
of – it’s an interesting combination, but it leads
to a basically conservative approach to things, which is one
of the things that’s so remarkable about the Libyan revolution
is in basically a conservative society you had people who finally
stood up and said, “Enough, we can’t stand this Qadhafi
stuff any longer,” and with great bravery and determination
stood up for their – stood up for a better future.
But the Islamists, as we would probably all define them, which
is not just people who are devout and conservative but people
who have a certain political ideology that they have mixed up
with the – with their religious fervor, seems to be a relatively
small percentage of both the leadership and the rank and file,
from as best as we can tell.
And the tribes seem to be playing an interesting role here.
There seems to be sort of a balancing element here, where the
tribal allegiances are somewhat kicking in, in order to sort
of soften or mitigate or in some cases even cancel out some of
the more Islamic leanings, sort of people pulling those that
might be going astray back into the tribe, using the tribes to
pull them together.
As I was saying to an earlier question, I think Elise wrote,
the debate on this whole question has shifted significantly from
my trips to Benghazi just a few weeks ago and earlier. And of
course, I’m seeing some of the same people in Benghazi
that I’m seeing here in Tripoli, and our representatives
in Benghazi and our representatives here in Tripoli are also
seeing some of the same people.
So you can sort of see how the debate is now evolving away from
this sort of fear that some people had – where is the revolution
there going, is the revolution being kidnapped by others? – to
more or less how (inaudible) do we centralize the command over
the fighters; how best do we build an inclusive system for the
interim period – because after all we’re only talking
about a transitional period now – that allows people to
take out their differences – ideological, political – in
the ballot box in seven or eight months? It’s really a
far different debate than it was even a few weeks ago.
QUESTION: What about the issue – if people are so – if
al-Qaida’s ideology has no place in Libya, is there talk
about military advisors or military training? Is anybody talking
about who’s going to train the Libyan military and make
sure that it can keep al-Qaida out?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I mean, your first question, I
shouldn’t – I don’t want to sound complacent
about your previous question either, because there are dangers
all over the world, which we’ve seen, and then the chaos
in some of the areas that are still being fought over in Libya,
who knows what could arise, so I don't want to sound too complacent
on your previous question.
In terms of the type of assistance that the Libyans would need
and welcome in terms of military training, counterterrorism assistance,
there are a number of countries, including the United States,
that I am sure would be willing to look positively at requests.
But this is going to have to be a Libyan process. The Libyans
themselves need to define for us what they’re comfortable
with. They have made it clear all along they don’t want
sort of combat boots on the ground. Well, that’s fine.
That’s – nor do we. President Obama has made that
But in terms of military training, counterterrorism assistance,
we think that the Libyans should look positively at this and
find a way to define these kinds of missions in ways that are
respectful of Libya’s sovereignty and Libya’s independence
but also protect Libya’s stability and security. The questions
of security vis-à-vis terrorism are no longer defined
to single countries, that they can cross borders quite easily.
So we will certainly be encouraging Libya to work with us on
finding appropriate counterterrorism measures.
QUESTION: So those talks haven’t happened yet?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: No. There are – there certainly
are discussions on counterterrorism issues already. And one of
the issues that we’ve been talking intensively with them
about is the problem of proliferation. There’s a – when
you have this amount of weaponry in the hands of your fighters,
one has to wonder what happens to those weapons later. And there’s
already people who – people from the U.S. Government who
are working quietly with the Libyans on the question of sort
of MANPADS, of how you have control and then destroy MANPADS.
There are discussions with the Libyans and the international
community about maintaining security for the nontraditional weapons
that are here. There are – already the United States, among
other countries, has supported activities to destroy landmines.
We’ve given support through the Swiss Foundation for Demining
and for the Mine Action Group International to be able to destroy
So this is all part of ongoing dialogue by Libya’s friends
with the Libyan Transitional National Council about how to make
sure that Libya doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism
and how to make sure that the security situation in Libya is
stable enough to nurture the types of democratic aspirations
that the Libyan people have been fighting for.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thanks, Jeff. And thanks to all of you for joining
us for this. I hope it was informative and worthwhile. Again,
thanks and have a great afternoon.
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