TRIPOLI, Libya — Four Republican senators traveled to Libya on Thursday to meet with the nation's new rulers, the highest-profile American delegation to visit the country since the ouster of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The four lawmakers — John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida — met with the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, and other high-ranking officials of the group that is now governing Libya after revolutionary forces ousted Gadhafi from power.
The fugitive leader remains on the run and his whereabouts unknown, but Libya's new rulers suspect he is hiding in the southern desert of the North African nation.
The senators toured Martyrs' Square and planned a news conference later Thursday. They traveled from Malta, where they met with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on Wednesday.
After months of fighting, anti-Gadhafi forces seized control of Tripoli late last month, and have solidified their control over much of the rest of the country. Battles still continue in three on three main fronts — Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and the southern city of Sabha.
The leaders of Britain, France and Turkey have visited Libya, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman has met with the NTC's leaders in Tripoli. But the congressional group was the most significant American presence to visit Libya as the nation begins a new chapter.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and panel member Graham had pressed President Barack Obama for U.S. military intervention in Libya, weeks before the U.N. Security Council voted in March to authorize military action to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone. McCain had invoked the humanitarian disasters in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.
When other lawmakers criticized Obama for acting with limited congressional consultation, McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, defended the president.
In April, McCain traveled to Benghazi, where he called the rebels "patriots" and "heroes."
Rubio is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kirk serves on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
The trip contrasted sharply to the last visit by McCain and Graham to Tripoli in August 2009, when they met with Gadhafi and his son Muatassim to discuss the possible delivery of non-lethal defense equipment as the erratic Libyan leader was moving to normalize his relations with the international community.
According to a classified document released by WikiLeaks, the delegation, which included McCain, Graham and two other senators, Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, held back-to-back meetings with Muatassim.
During that visit, McCain characterized the overall pace of the bilateral relationship as excellent during and noted the drastic changes over the previous five years. He also assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security, the WikiLeaks cable said.
It also noted the senators met with Gadhafi late at night and he hardly said a word. A note at the bottom of the memo said the delegation was told that they had to postpone the meeting from the afternoon because Gadhafi likes to nap after he breaks his fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Cassata reported from Washington.