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U.S., allies planning rapid de-escalation in Libya

WASHINGTON — Despite signs of dangerous fractures among the Libyan rebels who ousted Moammar Gadhafi, the United States and its European allies have ruled out a significant nation-building role or major infusions of aid to the postwar government in Tripoli.

The moves toward disengagement reflect the allies’ desire to scale back after a 5 1/2-month air war that strained their militaries and treasuries, and exposed their leaders to criticism at home.

The United States, France and Britain were the leading participants in the NATO campaign. President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are especially eager to put the war behind them because of approaching elections.

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Although the moves are supported by the rebels’ Transitional National Council, some experts worry that the allies may step back too quickly, pointing out that postwar order is far from assured. Libya’s diverse tribes and independent rebel militias have asserted competing claims of control, and have yet to come together under the ruling council.

“In a way, they’re declaring victory and moving on,” said Robert Danin, a retired U.S. diplomat in the Middle East who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “But things could go south, and these countries could be looking at a far different picture.”

For now, at least, the war-weary allies say the post-Gadhafi government can rebuild the battered country with its own money, even though Libya’s oil and gas sector may need two years to recover.

“Libya is a rich country,” said Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman, echoing a view voiced by European officials.

The allies’ approach will come into focus for the first time Thursday when the Western and Arab members of the diplomatic “contact group” that helped organize the NATO air war in Libya meet in Paris to lay out a new role.

Instead of making plans to raise cash or enlist peacekeeping troops, the diplomats will discuss providing advice to help create a democratic government, restore trade, restore their moribund financial system and train police forces, among other tasks.

In a signal of their effort to take a less central role, the group even is assuming a new name — the “Friends of Libya.”

U.S. and European officials say they will provide some aid, but it will be far less than in other conflicts. As a result, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for greater support, and an internal U.N. report warned “limited donor funding (is) available” because of perceptions Libya can use oil revenues to pay for its recovery.

By some accounts, Libya has $110 billion in frozen bank accounts and other assets around the world. Most are expected to go to the new government once the U.N. agrees on how to unwind its freeze.

France, Italy and other countries that are the traditional customers and oil field partners of Libya have lined up to sign new energy deals with the government.

The new tactics represent a gamble that Libya’s armed uprising will come in for a soft landing, without the ethnic bloodletting or chaos that engulfed Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasions.

Although the White House has always ruled out participating in a postwar peacekeeping force, European governments assumed one would be necessary and publicly discussed who would provide troops.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sensitive to complaints that her government declined to join the NATO air war, said in Washington earlier this year that Germany would try to provide troops for a postwar stabilization effort, if necessary.

But European and U.S. officials later learned that the rebel ruling council didn’t want foreign troops. The issue “is very sensitive in Libya” because of the bloody occupation in Iraq, said Ali Aujali, Libya’s ambassador to the United States.

A senior European official, asked if governments there would consider sending a force to restore order if the postwar period erupted in violence, said he was “very reluctant” to speculate.

“Suffice it to say, we are truly hoping that the situation does not go bad,” said the official, who asked to remain unidentified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

Jorge Benitez, director of the NATOsource blog at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said the sentiments were shared in the administration.

“Hope,” he said, “has always been a big part of the administration’s strategy in Libya.”
 

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