REPORTING FROM TRIPOLI, LIBYA -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, on his first visit to Libya since the fall of Moammar Kadafi, warned that its government faces "a long and difficult transition" as it seeks to bring militias and tribes under its control.
The new government in Tripoli has struggled to disarm the disparate forces that ousted Kadafi with NATO backing two months ago, raising fears of further factional fighting.
It is a tall order for a country whose institutions withered under Kadafi and whose government buildings were widely damaged in the eight-month uprising, including by NATO bombing.
"There is no doubt that you will confront some serious and difficult challenges bringing together all of revolutionary forces that fought from west to east," Panetta told Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Raheem Keeb at a joint news conference.
U.S. and European officials have urged the transitional government to secure weapons stockpiles, build a national army and professionalize the police, but those tasks have stalled in many towns where armed fighters have balked at giving up their arms.
Panetta's four-hour stop in the Libyan capital was aimed at offering encouragement more than specific assistance, U.S. officials said.
Panetta pledged to provide whatever assistance Libya needed, but he said there was no discussion of arms sales or any other specific aid.
Keeb said his government would unveil a program soon to encourage militia members to disarm. "We realize it’s not as simple as saying, 'OK, put down your arms,'" he said.
In his private talks, Panetta raised U.S. concerns that militant groups could take advantage of continued instability, but Libyan officials played down that possibility, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At the news conference, Panetta mentioned the need for Libya to "confront terrorism."
The White House announced Friday that it had lifted most of the economic sanctions imposed on Kadafi's regime and released around $30 billion in frozen Libyan government assets in the U.S.
Panetta's motorcade from Tripoli’s airport took him past the Kadafi compound that was struck repeatedly by NATO warplanes. The Obama administration took a secondary role in the NATO effort, providing Predator drones while largely leaving the airstrikes to allies. But it argued that Kadafi's ouster without major U.S. military involvement or forces on the ground was a success of American policy.
Panetta told reporters before landing in Tripoli that the U.S. ability to influence events in Libya was limited.
"The last thing you want to do is to try to impose something on a country that has just gone through what the Libyans have gone through," he said.
He added: "They have earned the right to work through the issues that they're going to have to confront."
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta points as he boards a plane ready to leave Tripoli on Saturday after his first visit to LIbya since Moammar Kadafi was overthrown. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Pool/Getty Images