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Rebel Leader Asks U.S. For Frozen Libya Funds

Mahmoud Jibril of the Libyan Transitional National Council talks with reporters after meeting with members of the  Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Mahmoud Jibril of the Libyan Transitional National Council talks with reporters after meeting with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.

A top representative of the Libyan opposition is making the rounds in Washington, including a planned visit to the White House on Friday.

Mahmoud Jibril is the prime minister of the so-called Transitional National Council. His goal is to persuade the United States to recognize the body as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people — and to give it some of the Libyan money the U.S. has frozen.

Jibril knows there are a lot of legal questions about how the United States should deal with the council. But he's hoping the U.S. can figure out some way to get money into the hands of those rising up against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

"All we are asking for is some understanding of the urgency of the situation," he says.

The Transitional National Council, he says, is running out of money and is trying to meet the expectations and demands of Libyans in the opposition-held east and in cities still under siege in the west. Jibril told reporters after a speech at the Brookings Institution on Thursday that the rebel council has followed international advice and set up a transparent financing mechanism.

"So we have the structure but we still don't have the money," he said. "The question is: When are we going to get the money? It's our money; it's the Libyan money. We are not asking for financial assistance from anybody. It's a huge difference, you know."

The United States froze more than $30 billion in Libyan assets as a way to pressure Gadhafi to leave. The opposition is trying to tap into that.

Frozen Funds

Jibril got a boost this week from Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who chaired a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday on Libya.

"We are working here in the Senate to construct and then pass the enabling legislation that will make it possible for Gadhafi's money to support the efforts of the Libyan people, which is what it should do in the first place," Kerry said.

But Jibril says the United States is only talking about freeing up about $180 million — and he needs more than $3 billion. So the opposition leader has his work cut out for him.

Jibril seems to be making a good impression on the lawmakers he met and on think-tank analysts, including Martin Indyk of Brookings.

"Prime Minister Jibril is quite impressive," Indyk says. "A Libyan leader who suddenly emerged on the stage in a way that is quite distinct from other Libyan officials that I've dealt with in the past — serious, smart and passionate about establishing a democracy in Libya."

Though Indyk has been skeptical about the U.S. involvement in Libya, he says the rebels deserve U.S. support.

"I don't think we have a strategic interest in what happens in Libya, but we definitely have a strong interest in, first of all, taking care of the humanitarian needs of the Libyan people and, secondly, helping them to overthrow this horrendous leader, Gadhafi," Indyk says. "And they're making progress."

Addressing Concerns

Jibril gave a fairly rosy picture of the situation on the ground. He brushed off talk of a stalemate. And he tried to dispel lingering concerns in Washington about the rebels. Jibril denied they have any links to extremists.

"We don't have al-Qaida in our freedom fighters on the ground or in the council, you know. But in a transparent manner, we had about 11 members who used to be in Afghanistan," he said. "And they are just ordinary citizens. When the uprising took place, they joined the struggle against the regime. But as individual citizens, but not as a group associated with al-Qaida."

Educated in the United States, Jibril used to be an economic planner in the Gadhafi government before joining the opposition. He's making his case for political recognition Friday at the White House, where he's scheduled to meet with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

U.S. officials say they are doing much to help the council — short of formally recognizing it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.