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Hillary Rodham Clinton tells Libyans: ‘We’re on your side’

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TRIPOLI, Libya — In a historic visit punctuated by celebratory gunfire and cries of “God is great,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton toured the Libyan capital Tuesday to pledge continued U.S. support for a transitional government still struggling to consolidate control over the war-ravaged country.

Clinton, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Libya since the ouster of autocratic leader Moammar Gaddafi in August, offered Libyan leaders practical and financial help on a wide range of fronts, from rebuilding the economy to caring for the country’s war wounded to rounding up thousands of antiaircraft missiles that have disappeared amid the chaos of recent fighting.

But she also warned of lingering dangers, including the risk of prolonged resistance by Gaddafi loyalists as well as the possibility that democracy could be usurped before it has time to take root.

“We are still at the point where liberation has not yet been claimed because of ongoing conflict,” Clinton told reporters at a joint news conference with Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister for Libya’s Transitional National Council. “There has to be a resolution before many of these programs can be put into action.”

As she spoke, there were fresh reminders of the challenges facing the interim government as it seeks to bring normality and order to the battered country after decades of dictatorship. In the Gaddafi stronghold city of Sirte, pro-Gaddafi forces repelled new assaults by revolutionary militias seeking to eliminate one of the last remaining holdouts of the former government. In Tripoli, control over parts of the city remained divided among rival militia groups, some of whom have resisted the idea of disarming and returning to civilian life.

Clinton said that the U.S. and Libyan governments remain focused on restoring security and pledged that NATO warplanes would continue to back the interim government’s military while fighting continued. She acknowledged that U.S. officials were concerned that Gaddafi could cause significant problems as long as he is at large.

“We want to do everything we can to prevent him from causing trouble for the new Libya,” Clinton said. “We don’t know where he is, but we hope he can be captured or killed soon so you don’t have to fear him any longer.”

A senior State Department official said later that Clinton’s “captured or killed” phrase was “not intended to signal a policy change.”

Clinton arrived in a capital city that has been cleared of the rubble and burned-out vehicles from weeks of street battles over the summer, yet still resembles an armed camp. Gun-toting men in mismatched camouflage guarded intersections and government buildings, and the staccato of small-arms fire greeted Clinton’s motorcade as she arrived under an overcast sky.

At the airport, dozens of militiamen crowded around America’s top diplomat, some shouting “God is great!” in Arabic as Clinton stopped to shake hands and exchange greetings. The secretary’s motorcade raced through the city with a motley escort of militia fighters in vans and pickup trucks, some with mounted machine guns and others adorned with camouflage netting and homemade flags.

At Tripoli’s main hospital, Clinton spoke with wounded fighters, including a man injured during fighting just four days earlier. Doctors thanked Clinton for promised help with supplies and equipment but said more was needed.

“We’re on your side,” she told them.

At a town-hall meeting, Clinton was greeted enthusiastically by university students, who took turns quizzing her on topics from women’s rights to U.S. internships. Everywhere, Clinton offered encouragement and a promise of continued U.S. backing for Libya during the transition to a new form of government.

“Libya is as well-positioned as any country in recent history to make this journey to democracy successfully,” she told the town-hall gathering. “But it will not be easy. You have to unify.”

Clinton’s six-hour visit started with private meetings with Jibril and with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the Transitional National Council. One aide said Clinton sought to create a foundation for a “completely different partnership between the United States and Libya that is deep and broad.”

Unlike other Arab states that have overthrown dictatorships, Libya has vast resources, including one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves and billions of dollars in cash and assets locked away in Western accounts during Gaddafi’s rule. Citing those riches, Clinton offered only modest increases in U.S. financial and other aid. She announced millions of dollars in additional funds and dozens of specialists to help Libyan officials recover and destroy conventional weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal.

The relatively restrained pledges prompted questions about the depth of the Obama administration’s commitment to Libya’s uprising. At the town-hall meeting, one man asked why Washington had deferred to other countries over leadership of NATO’s air campaign. Others have questioned why it took the Obama administration so long to send a high-level official to Tripoli, as France and Britain did weeks ago.

“Many people feel the United States has taken a back seat in helping the revolution. Will you now take the lead in helping us rebuild our country?” the questioner asked.

Clinton defended what she described as “the unique leadership role” played by Washington in organizing an international response to the Libyan uprising.

“The United States was actively involved, but we also thought it was important that there be a broad base of support for the Libyan revolution,” she said.

Even in the rebuilding phase, most of the ideas and energy will come from other sources, mostly the Libyans themselves, she said. But, she added, the United States “will continue to stand with you.”

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