(This story was updated after posting to include a Benghazi-based analyst's views and more comment from the Libya contact group.)
After months of conflict and NATO airstrikes in Libya, the United States on Friday recognized the opposition's Transitional National Council (TNC) as the “legitimate governing authority” in Libya as it continues its NATO-backed bid to remove Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Meeting for the fourth time to chart the future of a “post-Qaddafi era,” the 30-member Libya contact group in Istanbul on Friday pledged more money, bestowed more legitimacy, and promised more NATO airstrikes to help increasingly organized opposition forces conclude an operation that has dragged on far longer than anticipated and still has no end in sight.
Britain pledged four more jet fighters, but the belated US recognition may do more to assist the cash- and fuel-starved opposition with freeing up frozen funds and receiving military assistance.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “increasingly the people of Libya are looking past Qaddafi,” because “they know, as we all know, that it is no longer a question of whether Qaddafi will leave power, but when." The TNC has become the “appropriate interlocutor in dealing with Libya’s present and addressing Libya’s future,” said Mrs. Clinton.
US, NATO and contact group action would continue “to bring about Qaddafi’s departure, a ceasefire, and a political transition,” added Clinton. The TNC
had offered “important assurances today” to pursue democratic reform and transparency.
Adhering to those assurances may not be easy, judging by issues that have recently dogged the TNC.
“Life’s too comfortable in Benghazi. No real leadership. And too much suspicion and posturing by the individuals in and around the Council,” says one European analyst in Benghazi who asked not to be named. The result is an “astonishing lack of urgency from Benghazi in the last few weeks.”
The renewed statements of support from the contact group – and pledges of several hundred million more dollars for the opposition – came as rebel forces fighting on both eastern and western fronts have found it difficult to solidify military advances.
A tank-led advance on the oil refinery town of Brega that began late Thursday – the first such advance attempted on that front in two months, ordered from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi – was facing stiff resistance by pro-Qaddafi forces midday Friday. Tripoli claimed to have repulsed the attack.
And along the western Nafusah mountains, the town of Qawalish and its large military base – which sits astride a strategic supply route for the Libyan capital, Tripoli – was first captured by rebel forces a week ago, then briefly lost, then captured again.
Rebels there are training and capturing and receiving more military hardware, though it is not clear if they can move easily out of the mountains to positions
where pro-Qaddafi forces are dug in.
“You’re going to see more military activity in the next days and weeks,” said TNC spokesman Mahmoud Shamman in Istanbul. “Now we are on the front entrance of Brega, and we have very furious resistance from Qaddafi troops there, and I think by tomorrow Brega will be under our control.”
Nato reported striking five targets in Brega overnight.
"We assured them…we are heading toward a democratic constitutional state,” said Mr. Shamman. “We want to have an elected government, our roadmap [is] talking about constitutional committee and constitutional council which would lead the country for a period time.” He said the TNC planned for elections within a year.
But the top priority for the rebels is cash for a region that risks a shutdown within weeks without financial replenishment. The biggest expectation for the Istanbul meeting?
“Funds, funds, funds,” said Shamman, adding that commitments added up to $700 to $800 million, but that only $100 million had been received. The TNC’s current needs, he said, are $3 billion.
“We need to help our people. We are happy with the commitments, but we would like to see a mechanism that becomes a reality, the reality is the key question.”
The final statement of the contact group noted that “military means alone cannot resolve the crisis” in Libya, and promised to help “alleviate the Council’s urgent need for cash particularly for sustaining public services and maintaining basic living conditions among the people.”
Contact group foreign ministers vowed to help, by providing money or loans, and keeping up political and military pressure.
“Politically, the isolation on Mr. Qaddafi and the family is absolutely clear,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. “We had to combine political isolation with a very clear decision on how and when he leaves power. Today you will see the final document, where the contract group recognizes the TNC as the interlocutor representing the Libyan people, so no other option but Qaddafi leaves."
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