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Rebel council seeks to transform Libya

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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 11:11 AM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - They are a rebel leadership who meet in secret places in their own stronghold. Some change residences every few days. Others worry that their cellphones are tapped or walk with bodyguards. Their chairman is seldom seen in public: Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has placed a $400,000 bounty on his head.

"There is a price on the life of all of us," said Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer and a senior member of the rebel leadership. "We're dealing with someone who has a lot of cash. It's been a difficult time. It still is."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Paris on Monday night with a member of Libya's rebel leadership to assess the group's intentions and capabilities, and she heard from a movement under siege and desperate for international recognition, assistance and a no-fly zone. Gaddafi's forces are methodically edging toward Benghazi, where the rebels have created a government-in-waiting known as the National Transitional Council.

Clinton and Libyan council representative Mahmoud Jibril met privately for 45 minutes, discussing how the United States and its allies could help anti-Gaddafi groups withstand an increasingly brutal assault by Libyan troops and planes. The meeting in a central Paris hotel was Clinton's second with a Libyan opposition figure in less than a week, coming four days after she met with Libya's former ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, who now opposes Gaddafi.

A senior administration official familiar with Monday's talks said Clinton sought the meeting to "step up the level of U.S. outreach" to an opposition movement that has not been fully understood. Jibril, a representative for external relations for the opposition, impressed U.S. diplomats with his eloquence and support for an inclusive government in Libya, the official said.

Clinton made no promises for U.S. aid. Jibril expressed "a sense of urgency but not a sense of panic," and he reiterated his call for intervention to prevent attacks on civilians.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the G8 foreign ministers, meeting Monday in Paris, declined to go along with suggestions from France and Britain for a no-fly zone over Libya or other military action to blunt Gaddafi's offensive. Juppe expressed regret that France's proposals for such intervention last week went unheeded, saying the gains on the ground by Gaddafi's military might have been prevented.

"If we had used military force last week to neutralize some runways and the several dozen airplanes at [Gaddafi's] disposal, maybe the reversal that is happening now to the opposition's disadvantage would not have taken place," he said on Europe 1 radio. "What's going on today shows we missed an opportunity to shift the balance."

The Libyan council is made up of lawyers and intellectuals who profess ambitions of creating a Libya governed by democratic ideals, possibly altering the face of the Arab world and inspiring more autocratic regimes to fall. But it is also a leadership that is realizing that revolutionary zeal alone will not end Gaddafi's 41-year rule on a landscape that is increasingly feeling like civil war.

The group includes activists who have fought Gaddafi for decades and recent defectors. At times, the national council doesn't speak with a unified voice; day-to-day operations seem disorganized, even precarious. They have encouraged legions of enthusiastic but militarily inexperienced young people to fight on the front lines, a decision that has brought tactical setbacks.

Many of the leaders have no political experience, raising questions about their ability to create and run a post-Gaddafi government. In Egypt, deposed president Hosni Mubarak allowed political parties, elections, trade unions, rights groups and a free press that ultimately provided vital political training to his opponents. Gaddafi has muzzled the press and banned independent trade unions, political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

Yet the rebels have effectively run eastern Libya for the past three weeks, devoid of the chaos seen in Tunisia and elsewhere. They have established local councils that run hospitals, collect trash and operate banks, while providing services such as drinking water and electricity. Police patrol streets and direct traffic.


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