US ambassador returns to Libya

By Kim Gamel

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 21 2011 10:25 a.m. MDT

An armored vehicle tows another as transitional government fighters take up position in Wadi Dinar, Libya, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. A commander of new government's forces, Bashir Ahwaz said late Tuesday they were in control of most of the Gadhafi desert stronghold of Sabha, as most of the tribesmen loyal to Gadhafi fled the city instead of putting up a fight.

Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — The U.S. ambassador to Libya returned to Tripoli Wednesday to lead a newly reopened American Embassy in a post-Moammar Gadhafi era.

Ambassador Gene Cretz arrived in Tripoli, a day before plans to raise the U.S. flag over the embassy building in the Libyan capital. It was about eight months after he left for consultations in Washington in January after WikiLeaks posted his opinions of Gadhafi's personal life and habits in a classified 2009 diplomatic cable. At the time, the Obama administration was considering replacing him due in part to strains in ties caused by the blunt assessment.

Cretz returns to a country much changed since revolutionary forces seized control of Tripoli and forced the authoritarian leader into hiding after an uprising that began in mid-February.

Cretz was nominated to be the first U.S. ambassador to Libya in 36 years by President George W. Bush in July 2007 after a remarkable turnaround in U.S. relations with the North African nation.

The seismic shift in relations followed Gadhafi's 2003 renunciation of weapons of mass destruction and payment of compensation to the families of victims of 1980s terror attacks, including the bombing of PanAm 103 blamed on Libyan agents.

Cretz had kept a relatively low profile in Libya until November, when WikiLeaks posted his assessments of Gadhafi's personal life and habits in a classified 2009 diplomatic cable.

The secret document said Gadhafi "appears to have an intense dislike or fear of staying on upper floors, reportedly prefers not to fly over water, and seems to enjoy horse racing and flamenco dancing." It also discussed Gadhafi's longtime reliance on a Ukrainian nurse named Galyna who the cable said had been described as a "voluptuous blonde."

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that the ambassador would return, telling Libyans: "This is your chance. And today the world is saying, with one unmistakable voice, we will stand with you."

The United States launched the military air campaign that helped rout Gadhafi's forces after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in March authorizing a no-fly zone and approving all necessary steps needed to protect civilians. NATO later took charge.

On Wednesday, NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, granted approval to extend the mission for another 90 days, an alliance official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because a formal statement had not yet been prepared. Without an extension, permission for the operation would have expired Sept. 27.

While many in the nation of 6 million people are enjoying newfound freedoms, well-armed Gadhafi loyalists are still fighting on three fronts, and Libya's new rulers are struggling to form a government.

The National Transitional Council, which led the rebellion and is the closest thing Libya has to a government, failed Sunday to seat a new Cabinet, dashing hopes a new government would be in place before the interim leadership left to represent Libya at the U.N. General Assembly this week.

In New York, the NTC's Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said Tuesday that he expected a new government to be formed "within a week, 10 days maximum from now."

He said most of the work has been done, but it was important to ensure national consensus on the issue. The current political difficulties were not unusual for a "country which was absent from ... .any democratic culture," he said.

Gadhafi wielded near-total control over the North African nation for nearly 42 years. The uprising — inspired by the successful ouster of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt — spread from the eastern city of Benghazi in mid-February.

Armed fighters still loyal to the fugitive leader have repelled anti-Gadhafi forces in Sirte, the mountain enclave of Bani Walid and the southern area of Sabha.

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