U.S. looks to expand ties with Libyan opposition

Mahmoud Jibril, left, and Ali Al-Esawi, representatives of Mahmoud Jibril, left, and Ali Al-Esawi, representatives of the newly formed council based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, talk to the media after a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. (March 10, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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LONDON (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Tuesday with a representative of the Libyan opposition fighting Moammar Gadhafi’s regime as the Obama administration looked to expand ties with rebel leaders seeking democracy after four decades of dictatorship.

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Clinton’s meeting in London with Mahmoud Jibril came ahead of a conference on Libya’s future that will be attended by dozens of countries supplying air power or making other contributions to the international military action against Gadhafi’s forces.

A senior administration official said the conference will cement the transition in military leadership from the United States to NATO and create a steering group of nations to spearhead the political effort. Meanwhile, the United States will soon send an envoy to Libya to deepen relations with leaders of the rebels seeking to overthrow Gadhafi, the official said.

Chris Stevens, who was until recently the deputy chief of mission at the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, will make the trip in the coming days. The move doesn’t constitute formal recognition of the opposition, stressed the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

The London gathering comes a day after President Barack Obama vigorously defended the U.S.-led campaign against Gadhafi’s troops in Libya, declaring that action was necessary to prevent a slaughter of civilians. A massacre would have stained the world’s conscience and “been a betrayal of who we are” as Americans, Obama said.

Yet the president ruled out targeting Gadhafi, warning that trying to oust him militarily would be a mistake as costly as the war in Iraq, and said he would keep his pledge to get the U.S. out of the military lead fast.

In the British capital, world powers will address some of the questions that have been raised since the international strikes against Gadhafi began, from possible endgame scenarios for the regime to plans for the country’s post-dictatorship future.

The senior administration official said three practical outcomes were expected: recognition beyond NATO of the alliance’s new leadership in protecting Libyan civilians; the creation of a “contact group” to lead enforcement of U.N. sanctions and other political efforts against the Gadhafi regime; and a second trip to the country by U.N. special envoy Abdelilah al-Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister.

The official suggested that al-Khatib’s mission would be to negotiate the international community’s terms for a graceful exit for Gadhafi to spare further bloodshed in Libya. But the official rejected the idea that the Libyan leader of 42 years could escape accountability and a possible war crimes trial as part of an agreement for him to go into exile — an idea floated by some in the coalition.

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