- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Libyan visitor

Libya hopes to remove the last irritants blocking normalization of relations with the United States “very, very soon,” according to the North African country’s top foreign ministry official for North America.

Ahmed Said Fituri, secretary for American affairs, is the highest-ranking Libyan official to visit Washington since the surprise announcement by longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in late 2003 that he was giving up his nuclear weapons programs and seeking better ties with the West. Mr. Fituri gave an off-the-record talk at the Nixon Center think tank Tuesday, but spoke to our correspondent David R. Sands after the session.

The Bush administration restored formal diplomatic ties with Tripoli in May, ending Libya’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. energy giants have begun winning exploration contracts in Libya for the first time in decades.

But full normalization — including the naming of a U.S. ambassador to Tripoli and a possible visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Libyan capital — has been held up over U.S. concerns about Libya’s human rights record.

A number of regime critics have been jailed, and the United States and the European Union have criticized the Gadhafi government’s handling of the prosecution of a group of Bulgarian nurses convicted of infecting Libyan children with AIDS.

Mr. Fituri said Libya also wants some irritants removed from the bilateral relations, including the end of all sanctions and difficulties in obtaining visas to travel to the United States.

Mr. Fituri said he planned to spend much of his visit meeting members of Congress.

“I certainly want to listen to their concerns and discuss how we can close the gap. It is our hope and expectation that we can answer their questions and resolve all outstanding issues very, very soon,” he said. “There are some small things [that] should not be hindering our larger relationship.”

In addition to stronger economic and political ties, Mr. Fituri said he was particularly eager to boost bilateral cultural and educational programs as well. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he planned a trip to Michigan after his Washington visit.

“We would very much like to have more Libyan students studying at American universities and more American scholars coming to Tripoli,” he said.

The Libyan minister was making his first trip to the United States in more than two decades, but said he found much that was familiar.

“America is America,” he said. “You have your tastes, your energy, your immense culture. Such things do not change.”

More troops

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan sounded the call in Kabul for more NATO troops, as President Bush in Washington warned of the dangers of a spring offensive by Taliban forces trying to regain control in the Central Asian nation.

“I would like to see NATO countries collectively put in place the forces that NATO and its military committee have said are necessary,” Ambassador Ronald Neumann told Agence France-Presse in an interview published yesterday.

Mr. Neumann noted that some NATO “partners do a great deal,” citing the troops deployments from Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands and Romania. He did not criticize the other members of the 37-nation alliance, but some nations such as Germany restrict their troops from engaging in key areas in the south and east where Taliban fighters are concentrated.

The ambassador said that the 35,500 troops in Afghanistan are preparing for some “very hard fighting this year” from Taliban forces overthrown in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition.

“I hope our allies will do what they need to, but we are not going to lose it for lack of their action,” Mr. Neumann said.

In Washington, Mr. Bush told the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research that NATO “must provide” more troops and “lift restrictions” on those whose deployment is limited within the country.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@ washingtontimes.com.

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