Libyan rebel leaders will plead with the White House on Friday to be officially recognized as the government of the embattled nation and for money when they meet face-to-face with top Obama administration officials eager to size up who they’ve been backing.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the meeting does not signal recognition, but the get-together is still freighted with symbolism and inches closer to an official partnership two months after the U.S. began pushing for the ouster of Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
The rebel leaders said they are desperately short of funding and need official recognition immediately so they can tap into some $34 billion in Libyan funds that the U.S. government froze.
“We are running out of money. We have a human tragedy in the making right now,” Mahmoud Jibril, the interim prime minister of the rebels’ Transitional National Council, said in Washington on Thursday.
In Libya, meanwhile, NATO airstrikes pounded Col. Gadhafi’s Tripoli compound Thursday, just hours after he appeared on state television. His appearance was the first since a son was killed in another airstrike late last month.
Mr. Jibril will lead the rebel delegation meeting at the White House with Tom Donilon, the president’s top security adviser, and other top officials. President Obama is not scheduled to be in the meeting but could drop by informally — something rebel sources said they expect.
“If I meet President Obama, I would strongly urge him to play a more active role, because there is a lot at stake strategically for the United States if that role is not played properly. There is a lot to be lost,” Mr. Jibril said.
He said the rebels need “a few billion dollars” over the next six months and want access to the Gadhafi regime’s assets to be used as collateral for a line of credit.
He said it was odd that the Obama administration has said the Gadhafi regime has lost its legitimacy, but has not recognized the rebels.
Mr. Carney said the administration does accept the rebels as a voice of at least some of the country.
“We think that the council serves as a credible and legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people, for the opposition,” Mr. Carney told reporters Thursday, adding that White House officials “appreciate the statements that the TNC has made with regards to renouncing violence and al Qaeda and embracing democratic reforms.”
Still, he said, recognizing the TNC as the official government was “premature.”
France, Italy and Qatar are among a handful of countries that officially recognize the rebels, who run an opposition government from Benghazi, in the country’s northeast.
In the U.S., some lawmakers have pushed for recognition, but others have said too little is known about the rebels. Some have raised fears that al Qaeda fighters could be part of the opposition, though U.S. military officials have said they haven’t seen evidence of the terror group’s involvement.
Mr. Jibril told a small group of reporters that the U.S. wants to ensure that the transitional council is qualified to handle the situation, will protect its interests, and does not include any extremist elements.
“There is also concern about the day after the regime falls,” he said. “Are we going to face any chaos?”
He said these were all legitimate concerns that the rebels have already taken into consideration.
Mr. Obama’s administration has already authorized $25 million in “nonlethal” aid to the Libyan opposition, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry said this week he is drafting legislation that would free up a slice of the Gadhafi regime’s assets to give to the rebels.
Separately on Friday, Mr. Obama is scheduled to meet with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss operations in Afghanistan and Libya, where the rebels and government have been fighting for more than two months.
In March, the U.S. led a coalition of countries that imposed a no-fly zone over Libya before turning operations over to NATO. The Defense Department says the U.S. has spent about $750 million on operations so far.
With the government forces’ capabilities degraded, many observers say, the war appears to have reached a stalemate on the ground.
Mr. Jibril, though, denied there was a stalemate and said the rebels were hopeful of breaking the regime’s siege of the Western Mountains and of an imminent uprising in Tripoli.
Mr. Jibril said Col. Gadhafi has deployed two tools — the power to kill and the power to bribe.
“I think paralyzing his power to kill is a must for any political solution to have a reasonable chance to be a base for negotiation,” he added.
Mr. Jibril laid out the rebels’ road map for Libya if the Gadhafi regime falls.
The rebel council would first convene a national congress, which would select representatives from all over Libya to pick a committee that would draft a constitution. There would then be a referendum on the constitution. If this is approved, the new Libyan government would hold parliamentary elections, followed by a presidential vote.