ISTANBUL — The United States granted Libyan rebel leaders full diplomatic recognition as the governing authority of Libya on Friday, a move that could give the cash-strapped rebels access to more than $30 billion in frozen assets that once belonged to Moammar Gaddafi.
The rebels’ Transitional National Council “has offered important assurances today, including the promise to pursue a process of democratic reform that is inclusive both geographically and politically,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an explanation of the decision to other foreign ministers.
The U.S. announcement was accompanied by an agreement among all of the countries taking part in a meeting of 30 Western and Arab nations to similarly recognize the rebel council after five months of fighting that has failed to oust Gaddafi.
The move came after a plan was outlined by Libyan rebel leaders seeking to dispel doubts among Western powers about their capability to govern. The Libyan rebel representatives sent to Istanbul to make their case for recognition expressed exuberance after the announcement but also weariness and frustration at the limited help they have received.
With his hair matted in sweat and heavy bags under his eyes, Ali Tarhouni, the rebels’ minister of finance and oil, noted that the international recognition the rebels received Friday would not result in an immediate infusion of funds, which they desperately need.
“All it has brought is more pledges for money,” he said. “If we had as much money as we have had pledges these past few months, we would have no problems.”
Beside him, the rebels’ minister of information, Mahmoud Shammam, added that the opposition needs money but that it more desperately needs weapons, which most Western powers have refused to supply. The rebels might be barred from using money from frozen assets to buy weapons, he said.
News that the United States would recognize the rebel government as the legitimate authority in Libya spread quickly in the rugged desert mountains south of Tripoli, where rebel fighters have been battling Libyan troops. “We are very happy to hear this,” said Omar Gazayah, a teacher in the rebel town of Zintan who commands 230 fighters. “But we are waiting for actions, not just words and declarations.”
Gazayah said the rebels need money for fuel, medicine and weapons. “We hope this recognition means that America and NATO will put more pressure on Gaddafi — more pressure politically and with the military.”
So far, Kuwait and Qatar have given the rebels roughly $100 million. France on Friday renewed a previous pledge to unfreeze $250 million in assets in coming weeks for the rebels, and Italy pledged to unfreeze $100 million.
The United States did not pledge a specific amount, because the money is tied up in legalities, including U.S. and U.N. sanctions, U.S. officials said.
The United States could tell banks to transfer frozen assets directly to the Transitional National Council, but that could run into U.N. sanctions still in place. An alternative being considered by U.S. officials and Libyan rebels is using those assets as collateral for loans that rebels could use as funding.
The Obama administration’s announcement in Turkey drew immediate criticism from Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who has been among the most vocal Republicans on the Libyan conflict. “This is incredibly premature,” Turner said, citing concerns about the rebels’ loyalty to the United States. “I don’t believe the administration can even answer the question ‘Where will the money go?’ ”
Libyan rebel leaders in Turkey said in response that they are not asking for U.S. aid but for frozen assets that belong to the Libyan people.
According to Clinton, Friday’s move was meant as a clear signal of support for the rebels. For weeks, U.S. officials have stopped short of official diplomatic recognition because of concerns about whether a post-Gaddafi government set up by rebel leaders would be truly inclusive politically and geographically.
The United States and other foreign powers have worried that the oil-rich country could become embroiled in tribal conflicts or ethnic tensions once Gaddafi is no longer in power.
The United States changed its position after hearing a presentation in Turkey by Mahmoud Jibril, the transitional council’s foreign affairs representative, who described the rebels’ plans for governing a post-Gaddafi Libya.
According to Libyan council members, the plan includes having the rebels, now based in the eastern city of Benghazi, reach out to other regions of Libya not currently represented on the council. Together, they would form an interim government to rule in Gaddafi’s place and then guide the country through democratic reforms and, ultimately, the election of a new government. Because the council plans to form an interim governing body, it will not immediately be changing its name.
In Libya, rebel leaders complained Friday that NATO’s mandate of limited engagement should be expanded to allow allied warplanes to strike at Gaddafi’s forces in coordination with rebel attacks.
“NATO hits one tank and then goes home,” said Ibrahim Taher, a battalion commander in Zintan who lost eight fighters Wednesday. “NATO could change this war in a day if they wanted to.”
The question of how to oust Gaddafi also dominated the meeting in Istanbul. Foreign ministers debated the sincerity of Gaddafi emissaries who have recently declared that he is ready to step down. U.S. officials say that Gaddafi’s camp has sent contradictory signals and that they are not convinced he is prepared to give up power.
Leading up to the meeting, Turkey and the African Union proposed “road maps” for resolving the conflict. But foreign ministers from several countries, including Italy and France, said there are too many road maps and separate talks with Gaddafi emissaries. As a result, the international contact group agreed to make the U.N. special envoy to Libya, Abdul-Illah Khatib, the sole representative to communicate with Gaddafi’s government.
The session in Turkey is the fourth official meeting of the contact group. For the first time, China and Russia were invited to attend. But the two countries, which have been critical of the NATO-led campaign, declined.
Booth reported from Zintan, Libya. Staff writers David Fahrenthold in Washington and Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.