By Stephen Kaufman, Staff Writer from The Bureau of International Information Programs -- U.S. Department of State Washington
The top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East says the diverse Libyan groups that joined together in opposition to Muammar Qadhafi's regime are peacefully discussing their differences and looking ahead to national elections as the country continues its transition from Qadhafi's 42-year reign.
Speaking to reporters in a September 14 conference call, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and North African Affairs Jeffrey Feltman acknowledged that rebel groups "came together with one goal, which was to get rid of Qadhafi and have a different future for Libya," but that there are divisions among them in terms of geography and political views, and in how they see the way forward for their country.
Feltman spoke after visiting Tripoli and meeting with a broad array of Libyans, including Transitional National Council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, civil society representatives and health professionals.
He said no one knows where Qadhafi is or how much money he has at his disposal, but in his informal conversations with Libyans, the people speak as if the former leader has become irrelevant.
Libyans have moved on, he said, and Qadhafi "is already part of the past." The Libyan people are now "trying to figure out what is the best way forward," and Feltman said he had left Tripoli "somewhat encouraged by how they're dealing with the differences among them."
The assistant secretary said he had heard "broad support for the basic outline the TNC put forward, which is sort of a consolidation for now, leading to elections in a period of about eight months from now." By accepting that outline, Libyans know "they are going to be able to play out their political differences through the ballot box and [they] have time to prepare for that," he said.
"I really did leave today feeling that the question of east versus west, the question of Islamist versus non-Islamist, the question of Tripoli versus the rest of the country, are being discussed in a ... positive way rather than a fearful way," he said.
The debate among Libyans "is now evolving away from the sort of fear that some people had" over the direction of the revolution against Qadhafi into how best to centralize the country's command structure and fighters, and how to build "an inclusive system for the interim period" that will allow the differences among them to be settled by voting.
"It's really a far different debate than it was even a few weeks ago," he said.
There is a sense that the differences among Libyans "can be worked out in a peaceful way, and not fighting on the streets," Feltman said. Feltman said he told Libyan leaders that the Obama administration wants to build "a broad relationship" with the new Libya that will be "based on mutual respect and shared interests."
He also said the United States wants to see the TNC's positive language on human rights, including minority and women's rights, translated into "real action on the ground," such as having women play leadership roles in the post-Qadhafi state.