TRIPOLI, Libya — Pentagon chief Leon Panetta made history Saturday as the first American defense secretary to set foot on Libyan soil and said he hoped the post-Moammar Gadhafi government could assemble the country’s militias into “one Libya.”
Panetta has indicated that the U.S. will give the Libyans some time to gain control of the militias that overthrew Gadhafi during an eight-month civil war before determining how to help the fledgling government.
At a news conference in the capital with Prime Minister Abd al-Raheem al-Keeb, Panetta said that he was confident that the new Libyan government is reaching out to all groups and would bring them together as part of “one Libya.”
Panetta, who was joined by Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said the United States would provide whatever assistance the Libyans needed.
The prime minister told reporters that he was optimistic that the new government in Tripoli could deal the militias.
Panetta’s route into the city took him past lush orange groves, carcasses of bombed buildings and the charred and graffiti-covered compound once occupied by Gadhafi.
Flying from rooftops were the green, black and red flags, adorned with a star and a crescent, belonging to the new government. Amid the Arabic graffiti splashed across the walls of the compound was a short comment in English: “Thanx US/UK.”
Panetta also made an emotional visit to what historians believe is the gravesite of 13 U.S. sailors killed in 1804. Those deaths were caused by the explosion of the U.S.S, Intrepid, which was destroyed while slipping into the Tripoli harbor to attack pirate ships that had captured an American frigate.
Panetta walked into the small walled cemetery with more than two dozen gravestones and made his way to a corner where five large but simple white gravestones mark the graves of the American sailors. The stones read, “Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the United States Ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbour, Sept. 4, 1804.”
Panetta placed a wreath at the site and then observed a moment of silence. He also left behind a memento of his visit on top of one of the stones, a U.S. secretary of defense souvenir coin.
While eager to encourage a new democracy that emerged from Libya’s Arab Spring revolution, the U.S. is wary of appearing as trying to exert too much influence after an eight-month civil war.
At the same time, however, leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere worry about how well the newly formed National Transitional Council can resolve clashes between militia groups in the North African nation.
Ahead of Panetta’s visit, the Obama administration announced it had lifted penalties that were imposed on Libya in February to choke off Gadhafi’s financial resources while his government was using violence to suppress peaceful protests.
The U.S. at the time blocked some $37 billion in Libyan assets, and a White House statement said Friday’s action “unfreezes all government and central bank funds within U.S. jurisdiction, with limited exceptions.”
Recovery of the assets “will allow the Libyan government to access most of its worldwide holdings and will help the new government oversee the country’s transition and reconstruction in a responsible manner,” the White House said.
But the continuing violence in Libya, including recent skirmishes between revolutionary fighters and national army troops near Tripoli’s airport, reflects the difficulties that Libya’s leaders face as they try to forge an army, integrating some of the militias and disarming the rest.
Officials acknowledge that process could take months, and that they can’t force the militias to go along.
By traveling to Libya, Panetta was highlighting the different approaches that the U.S. and other countries are taking with respect to rebellions in the region against tyrannical leaders.
The U.S. and NATO provided months of military power and assistance to the Libyan rebels, but officials have made it clear they do not intend to do the same in Syria despite the furor over President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators.
Panetta, who met with Turkish officials Friday, said they did not discuss any specific steps to increase pressure on Assad to step down.
But they talked about the need to work together with other nations to “get Assad to do the right thing.”
At some point, he said, he believes that the type of uprisings that happened in Libya and elsewhere across the Middle East will take place in Syria.