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Clinton in Tripoli seeks to bolster ties with post-Qaddafi Libya

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Tripoli on Tuesday as Libya’s new rulers try to crush the last pockets of resistance by fighters loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi.

The first U.S. cabinet official to visit Libya since 2008 when Washington wanted to forge a new relationship with Qaddafi, Clinton will announce a set of new programs designed to foster closer U.S.-Libyan ties including U.S. help for treating fighters wounded in Libya’s insurrection, resuming student exchange programs and more help for Libya's effort to track down and destroy dangerous Qaddafi-era weaponry, according to Reuters.

In a lightning visit amid tight security, the chief U.S. diplomat was to meet National Transition Council (NTC) chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, interim prime minister Mahmud Jibril as well as Ali Tarhuni, the oil and finance minister, according to AFP.

Her visit to the oil-rich country follows those by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well as foreign ministers from Britain, Italy, and Canada.

Speaking on the flight from Washington to Tripoli, via Malta, a senior U.S. State Department official said the United States aimed to forge new civilian ties with the Libyan people as the U.S.-backed NATO air mission winds down.

“It’s not only that we want to be talking to Libyan officials about their own transition plans forward and how they translate their commitment to justice, transparency, rule of law into practice,” he told reporters.

“But it is also to signal to the Libyan people that we want a normal partnership going forward that is based on civilian relationships,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

In the short term, he said the United States wants to provide parts and chemicals for the medical equipment needed to care for thousands of war wounded, while also transferring difficult cases to specialist U.S. hospitals.

It also wants to expand educational programs for Libyans to study in the United States, expand English-language programs in Libya, and provide jobs training for the war wounded.

He said it aims to offer grants to Libyans to develop archaeological sites in eastern Libya, including the UNESCO world heritage site of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, a move that would presumably bolster tourism revenue.

More broadly, he said, the U.S. wants to talk about “how to integrate Libya fully into the 21st century world economy in transparent ways where Libya’s oil wealth is used for the benefit of all of Libya’s citizens.”

The United States said it has so far spent $135 million, including for humanitarian assistance as well as boots and uniforms for the NTC forces, since the conflict broke out in Libya in February.

U.S. officials said the United States also seeks to raise from about $30 million to about $40 million the assistance it gives Libya to find and destroy shoulder-fired rockets known as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems).

Clinton has publicly raised concerns that such weapons -- which pose a threat to civilian aircraft -- could fall into militant hands in the vacuum following Qaddafi’s fall in August after 42 years in power.

The senior U.S. official expressed hope the NTC leadership follows through on its efforts to establish a centralized security system by grouping all the diverse militias that fought Qaddafi under one apparatus.

He said not all militia leaders were yet participating, calling it a “challenging process.”

The senior U.S. official acknowledged concerns about civil war but said the tide was turning against Qaddafi and his sons, who were still at large, and loyalist fighters who were holed up in Sirte, the former leader’s hometown.

“None of us know where Qaddafi is ... But he has people, henchmen, loyalists, sons, here and there, who still have circles around them,” the official said.

“I don’t think there’s any coordination going on between them. I think you are having pockets of people who are trying to stop the flow of history ahead,” he said.

“He still is providing a lethal nuisance factor that is a distraction for many Libyans,” the official added. “But the people of Libya by large measure are already plotting .... the future of Libya without Qaddafi.”

Clinton is the first U.S. cabinet official to visit Libya since her predecessor Condoleezza Rice went to Tripoli in September 2008 and met Qaddafi in what was a new stage in Washington’s reconciliation with a former enemy state.

Rice’s visit came five years after Qaddafi’s dramatic announcement he was abandoning weapons of mass destruction programs.