Libyan rebel fighters prepare ammunition on the outskirts of Zlitan, near… (Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington and Benghazi, Libya — The Obama administration formally recognized a rebel group as Libya's government, giving the forces struggling to overthrow Moammar Kadafi's regime for the last five months a dramatic diplomatic boost and potentially access to billions of dollars in badly needed cash.
Setting aside fears that Islamic radicals may emerge among the insurgents, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Friday in Istanbul, Turkey, that the United States would join more than 30 other nations in extending diplomatic recognition to the Transitional National Council, which is based in Benghazi and controls eastern Libya.
Kadafi's 4-decade-old regime, which controls much of western Libya, "no longer" has legitimacy to govern the country, Clinton said. As a result, she added, Washington will deal with the council as the legal government "until an interim authority is in place."
Clinton acknowledged to reporters that administration deliberations have been lengthy, but she insisted the time had been necessary.
"We really acted in warp time in diplomatic terms, but we took our time to make sure … based on the best possible assessments," she said.
Habib Ben Ali, media liaison for the rebel council, called the announcement "a terrific development for us — a real political victory." U.S. diplomatic recognition is "the icing on the cake," he added.
In a radio broadcast, Kadafi poured scorn on the decision, and insisted he is not giving up power or leaving the country.
"I don't care which countries recognize the rebels' transitional council," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Tell NATO and other countries to pick up the white flag and ask our forgiveness."
North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes, backed by U.S. intelligence and other support, have been bombing Kadafi's military forces and other ground targets since March 19 under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians. But the poorly trained and lightly armed rebels appear stalled on several fronts, and have yet to dislodge Kadafi's regime.
The move comes at a time when Western and Arab governments are increasingly eager to wind down the war. Pressure is building in several European countries for an end to a conflict that was originally expected to last fewer than 90 days.
In one sign of the eagerness to end the war, Turkish officials said at the Istanbul meeting that they, like the French and some other governments, were prepared to consider the possibility of an internal exile for Kadafi, rather than his departure from the country.
The chief effect of recognition may be financial. The rebels have been pleading with Washington and other governments for months to release frozen Libyan assets, including $34 billion held in U.S. banks, and that now appears increasingly likely.
At the Istanbul meeting, France said it was taking steps to unfreeze $250 million, while Italy said it was moving to unfreeze $100 million. U.S. officials said it would take time to release the Libyan money because of legal restrictions, but the task is easier if the council is the recognized government.
The rebels have said they need $3.5 billion this year to prosecute the war and administer the cities and towns they control.
While Kadafi's forces also appear to be running out of cash and fuel, the rebel council said this week that it was essentially broke after a $500-million line of credit in Europe was cut off. With Libya's oil industry shut down by fighting, the rebels must import virtually all gasoline and other fuel for the war effort and government services.
The rebels also hope to draw cash from a temporary trust fund set up by the 32-member contact group for Libya, which was meeting in Istanbul and includes the Arab League and the U.N. That money has been held up by countries that donated it, but are seeking assurances that the council intends to set up an inclusive and democratic government.
The move Friday also has a symbolic component. It may give the rebels added legitimacy among ordinary Libyans, including those in Kadafi-controlled areas of the country's west. Supporters hope it will help convince Kadafi's forces that his regime cannot survive much longer.
The Obama administration has been deeply divided on extending diplomatic recognition to the rebels since the armed uprising broke out in eastern Libya in February.
The rebellion spread quickly, but then regime forces moved to regain territory and Kadafi threatened to massacre his opponents. Despite the NATO air campaign, the conflict has appeared stalemated for months, with the country effectively cut in half.
Some White House officials, as well as members of Congress, warned that the rebel council's membership and goals were unclear, and potentially dangerous.