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Libya rebels want U.S. recognition to help pay bills

The rebel ambassador seeks diplomatic recognition for the Transitional National Council to bolster its standing and possibly allow it to use frozen Libyan assets. Until then, the council is broke.

June 06, 2011|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Ali Aujali, center, and other diplomats listen to a speech by President Obama last month in Washington. Aujali was Libya's ambassador to the U.S. until February, when he went to the rebel side. He now represents Libya's Transitional National Council.
Ali Aujali, center, and other diplomats listen to a speech by President… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — As fellow rebels back in Libya plot fresh attacks against embattled leader Moammar Kadafi, the chief of the Libyan insurgency's American outpost sits in a tiny, borrowed Washington office and faces a more immediate question: Who will pay the bills?

Ali Aujali, the soft-spoken representative from the rebels' ruling body, the Transitional National Council, has spent three months in a forlorn effort to persuade the Obama administration to extend diplomatic recognition to his group, a move that would bolster its international standing and could provide access to $34 billion in frozen Libyan assets.

But the White House has shut the door on formal recognition, imperiling the interim council's ability to pay for its rebellion as well as Aujali's capacity to keep the lights on in his lonely mission.

The military stalemate in Libya has turned Aujali, who served as Kadafi's envoy in Washington before switching sides in February, into a Rodney Dangerfield of diplomats. He waters his front lawn, worries about storm damage to his roof, and takes walks with his grandchildren when he's not escorting visiting rebels to inconclusive meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

His hopes have been raised time and again, only to be dashed. When he asks American officials why the Obama administration won't recognize the opposition council even though the U.S. insists Kadafi step down and is supporting the NATO alliance that is bombing Kadafi's military, diplomacy kicks in.

"I am only told, 'It is a legal issue,' and no more," sighs Aujali, a compact man in his early 60s with a shaved head and a close-cropped goatee. "We are desperate."

Administration officials, for their part, say the council isn't the only Libyan opposition group, and it may not control enough territory or population to qualify as sovereign. The officials also worry that the makeshift council may not be able to observe treaties and international obligations, as would be required if it was Libya's official government.

It's an odd life. Aujali was given the honor of a front-row seat when President Obama hailed the "Arab Spring" uprisings in a major speech at the State Department last month. Aujali briefly cheered up when Obama said Libya's opposition had "organized a legitimate and credible" interim council, but the president left it at that.

The Obama administration has granted the council permission to open a Washington office, a gesture aimed at enhancing its stature. But Aujali and his six aides are jammed two to a room in a suite of small offices that he says a friend, whom he declined to identify, has provided for free.

"I have no budget," he explains.

U.S. authorities have allowed Aujali and his family to remain in Libya's ambassadorial residence, a refurbished 1890s mansion in a leafy Washington neighborhood. The residence is still technically owned by the regime he is trying to overthrow, although Kadafi's government has not tried to evict him. The U.S. is holding the property in custodianship for the post-Kadafi government.

The grand entrance hall displays the kind of photographs often seen in senior diplomats' homes. They show Aujali and his wife smiling with the Obamas, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former President George W. Bush.

Kadafi's official portrait has been whisked away, as have been copies of the infamous Green Book, Kadafi's rambling political manifesto, which once held an honored place on a nearby table. To make it clear that he has split with the autocratic ruler whom he served for more than 40 years, Aujali jokes that he should just scrawl graffiti on the wall: "Kadafi was here."

Aujali joined the Libyan diplomatic service shortly before Kadafi seized power in a 1969 coup. Now his face appears like a mug shot, along with those of other former diplomats and officials who defected, in angry television broadcasts in Tripoli in which Kadafi reviles the "traitors" who he says have sold out his revolution.

Aujali knows that Kadafi has used terrorist plots and assassinations to eliminate opponents in the past. "I believe that if I am meant to live to 90, it will be," he says with a shrug.

Aujali grew up near Ajdabiya in what is now rebel-controlled eastern Libya. He has a degree in business administration from the University of Benghazi, the city that is the rebels' de facto capital, and served in Malaysia, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and other diplomatic posts before he arrived in Washington as Libyan ambassador in 2004.

He first met Kadafi at a reception in Tripoli in 2008, when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to Libya to mark the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations after Kadafi surrendered his nascent nuclear weapons program. As Aujali recalls the meeting, Kadafi appeared surprised to meet his envoy to Washington and said, "I thought you were an American."

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