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In Paris, US seeks to secure its spot among Libya's new best friends

When it comes time to rebuild Libya after Qaddafi, the US will be looking for its share of contracts. Despite its backseat role in the NATO campaign, the US can expect a good spot on the friends list.

By Staff writer / September 1, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Libyan Transitional National Council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil (c.) and Libyan Transitional National Council Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, Thursday, Sept. 1, in Paris.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

To the victors go the spoils, the old saying goes – and it appears likely that the case of Libya will uphold the rule.

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Libya’s new transitional leaders (formerly known as rebels) used a Paris conference Thursday to outline to the international community their plans for a political transition, as well as to lay out their need for international assistance in stabilizing the country after six months of conflict.

Several attendees, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the United States, used the gathering of some 60 countries and international organizations to announce the release of billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the new leadership.

But the meeting was also an opportunity for countries to jostle for a spot on Libya’s interim rulers’ list of best friends – a list that is likely to be referenced in the months ahead as Libya gets back on its feet and puts out for bidding everything from ministry rebuilding and infrastructure repair to oil contracts and arms purchases.

Both Britain and France, who led the NATO military mission that helped topple Col. Muammar Qaddafi and who hosted Thursday’s conference, can expect high rankings on the friends list. So, too, can the US, despite its backseat role in the NATO campaign and an initial reluctance to recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s new legitimate power.

A desire to be on the winning side – and to reap the benefits of doing so – goes a long way in explaining Russia’s decision to recognize the TNC on the eve of the Paris conference.

Until this week Russia had been reluctant to take any action that might suggest it condoned NATO’s involvement in the conflict, and it had also hoped to create a role for itself in Libya by maintaining its contacts with Mr. Qaddafi’s regime, some regional analysts say. But with a deposed and hunted Qaddafi now clearly the loser, the analysts add, the only option for a country like Russia that is looking to burnish its standing in the Middle East is to jump to the winners.

“Gee, what a surprise that was,” says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington. “The Russians were particularly loath to see the end of a regime they were so close with, so salvaging some kind of foothold in Libya was not part of their motivation for recognizing the council, it was their only motivation.”

That does not mean that Russia is the only country out there looking to preserve or augment its cut of the Libyan pie.

Mr. White, a former State Department Middle East expert, says the Qaddafi regime has been “utterly inept” at maintaining infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector – a fact he says is well known in the region and beyond.

“Libya is probably more dependent on foreign expertise than anyone in the region to keep its infrastructure in working condition. That is going to be even more true as Libya moves to bring its infrastructure back up,” he adds, “and people know it.”

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