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LIBYA: Obama confident in rebel leaders

Earnest President Obama has confidence that rebel forces are gaining the upper hand in Libya and will be able to transition to “free and Democratic” Libya soon, White House officials said Wednesday.

Speaking from the president’s vacation retreat in Martha’s Vineyard, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Libya’s rebel government, the Transitional National Council, is in the “early stages of trying to put some governmental infrastructure in place” and that the U.S. is committed to helping them in that effort.

“We do have confidence in the TNC,” Earnest said during a briefing Wednesday in Vineyard Haven. “It was this president who led the effort to, several months ago, to recognize them as the proper ruling entity in that country. And we are encouraged by the way they have conducted themselves so far, and we intend to be a partner and to be supportive of their efforts … to put in a governmental structure and transition to a freer Libya.”

So far White House officials have offered few details about what the U.S. role would look like if Kadafi is ousted in the days or weeks ahead. The White House insists that the president’s position that he will not put U.S. boots on the ground in Libya has not changed.

On Wednesday, Earnest said he had no information on reports that the international community is assembling a “bridging force” to assist in a potential post-Kadafi era. And the White House spokesman brushed off a question about whether administration officials are encouraging NATO or European allies to commit their own troops to that kind of a ground force.  

Earnest noted that the U.S. is actively involved in an effort to help free $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets, which would help provide rebel leaders with a “significant start in trying to build up the kind of infrastructure that they need to build,” he said.

“This is an easy way for us to stand on the side of the Libyan people, to be supportive of their efforts to put in place a government that will acknowledge freedom, that will acknowledge democracy -- and that’s something we remain committed to,” Earnest said. 

He emphasized that “there is no American military presence -- in terms of boots on the ground -- in Libya.”

“That’s one of the things that’s been remarkable about this operation -- that the president was able to provide the kinds of leadership and support for the TNC, in close coordination with our NATO allies and with our allies in the region; that we were able to make that kind of commitment without putting boots on the ground there. And that’s something that we remain committed to and that does distinguish it from the situation that exists right now in Iraq.” 

When asked how long the broader U.S. commitment to Libya would last or what level of financial support would be required, Earnest said he would not speculate about the future.         

Though rumors abound that Kadafi has fled Libya, White House officials said Wednesday that there is no evidence indicating that. They would not say whether U.S. intelligence forces are assisting in the search for Kadafi.

Earlier this week when Kadafi’s regime looked to be on the brink of collapse, Obama interrupted his vacation to make a televised statement in which he congratulated rebel forces on their incursion into Tripoli and called on Kadafi to relinquish power.      

Though that has yet to happen, Earnest insisted Wednesday that Kadafi’s “42-year grip on power in Libya is slipping.” 

-- Maeve Reston in Martha's Vineyard

Photo: Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest faces reporters during a news conference at a hotel in Vineyard Haven, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Wednesday. Credit: Steven Senne/Associated Press.

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