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Returned U.S. envoy to Libya doesn't see long-term insurgency

In his first public comments since returning to Libya, Ambassador Gene Cretz voices hope that moderate elements will prevail as authorities seek to craft the nation's first representative government.

September 23, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz speaks at the official reopening of the American Embassy in Tripoli. He was back after an absence of nearly nine months precipitated by WikiLeaks revelations attributed to him characterizing onetime Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi.
U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz speaks at the official reopening of the American… (Mohamed Messara / European…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Fugitive leader Moammar Kadafi remains a danger and Libya faces "stubborn resistance" from former regime loyalists, but the U.S. ambassador to Libya said Thursday that he did not envision a long-term insurgency against the nation's fledgling government.

"I don't think the Libyan people, after all the blood that has been shed in the last six months, are going to let their revolution be hijacked," Ambassador Gene Cretz said after a flag-raising ceremony at the ambassador's residence, now the site of the U.S. Embassy.

A mob sacked and set fire to the embassy in May after a NATO airstrike that, the regime said, killed one of Kadafi's sons.

Cretz, who returned to Libya this week, had left nearly nine months ago after revelations on the website of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group. Leaked cables attributed to Cretz exposed some undiplomatic revelations about Kadafi, including his hatred of flying over water, his phobia about staying on upper floors of buildings, his love of flamenco dancing and his constant companion, a "voluptuous blonde" nurse from Ukraine.

On Thursday, the 61-year-old career diplomat said he had received threats after the revelations and left Tripoli, where he had served since late 2008 as the first U.S. ambassador in more than three decades.

In his first public comments since his return, Cretz also voiced the hope that moderate elements would prevail as Libyan authorities endeavor to craft the nation's first representative government.

"They're going through the natural throes of a democratic process," the veteran diplomat from Albany, N.Y., said after the flag-raising ceremony, which was accompanied by a brass trio playing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Islamists pushing for a voice in the new Libya were a concern, Cretz said, but he noted that they have voiced support for democracy. Kadafi brutally repressed Islamists, whom he viewed as a threat to his hegemony.

Islamists "have been in words, at least, espousing a moderate platform," Cretz said. "They speak a good game.... But at the end of the day they need to be watched."

The ambassador said he expected that whatever government emerges in Libya would be "a reliable partner" against terrorism.

The Kadafi regime, once an international pariah because of its alleged sponsorship of terrorism, had in recent years cooperated with the United States and other Western nations in tracking down suspected militants.

Although he said there was a "possibility that things could go wrong," Cretz was enthusiastic about Libya's future.

"It's a very exciting time but it's a massive undertaking," said Cretz, a former Peace Corps volunteer.

As for Kadafi's whereabouts, the U.S. envoy said the "best guess" was that the former leader was somewhere in the vast desert of southern Libya. But Libyans, he said, had largely put Kadafi behind them.

"He remains a danger and it is necessary that he be brought to justice. But this country is moving on."

Two towns, the Mediterranean port of Surt, Kadafi's hometown, and the tribal stronghold of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, remain in Kadafi's camp. Fighters loyal to the transitional government have met fierce resistance trying to storm the towns, stoking fear of a drawn-out insurgency here.

A "very high priority" for the White House, Cretz said, was for Libyan authorities to secure the proliferating array of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, that have been found in ransacked warehouses and armories since Kadafi fled. Some fear that Libyan arms cold end up on the international black market and even in the hands of terrorists.

"It's not just a Libyan problem," Cretz said of the weapons. "It's an international problem."

As foreign firms seek contracts in the new Libya, Cretz voiced the hope that U.S. companies would face "a level playing field" in what is expected to be a robust competition with firms in Europe, Asia and elsewhere looking to cash in on this nation's reconstruction plans and oil-industry contracts.

He was effusive in praise of U.S. policy in aiding the NATO air campaign, saying that Washington "did the right thing."

Americans "are very proud of the role we played" in helping to liberate Libya, he said, but there was no quid pro quo expected in terms of payoffs for U.S. firms.

The new government, Cretz said, was going to have to "find a way" to deal with reports of revenge killings by rebels and the "mistreatment" of African migrants, many of whom have been mistakenly detained as suspected mercenaries, human rights groups say.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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