Officials, friends, and supporters of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) convened on the sidewalk outside the Watergate complex this afternoon to sing and celebrate the formal reopening of the Libyan embassy in Washington, DC, which is now officially under the TNC's control.
The new charge d'affaires Ali Aujali presided over the event, giving a speech to the assembled crowd, unlocking the doors, and inviting guests inside for an impromptu press conference. Aujali was quite familiar with the surroundings. He served Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi as the Libyan regime's top representative in Washington for years before defecting to the rebel side in February.
When your humble Cable guy snuck into the Libyan embassy in March, there were still huge posters of Qaddafi on the wall and stacks of his famous "Green Book" manifesto piled high in the lobby. But today, all signs of the regime had been removed. The space where Qaddafi's portrait once hung is now filled with a poster of Omar Muktar, the leader of the Libyan anti-colonial uprising who was hanged by the Italians in 1931. All of the green regime flags have been replaced by the tricolor pre-Qaddafi monarchial flag that has become a symbol of the revolution.
"For the first time in 50 years, this embassy represents a free Libya," Aujali said to the assembled crowd outside. "This new embassy, under the control of the Transitional National Council, is committed to serving the Libyan people and advancing the call for freedom and democracy in Libya. The Libyan people are not in this struggle alone. They will be forever grateful to the United States for coming to their aid in their greatest time of need."
But the event was also peppered with constant reminders that the TNC, despite being recognized by the Obama administration as the official government of Libya last month, is still in the midst of battle and struggling with the U.S. government to get control of the billions of dollars of Qaddafi assets that have been frozen by U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
"Diplomatic recognition is not an end in itself, but rather an important step toward bringing greater cooperation between the TNC and the United States. I am hopeful that the United States government will soon move forward with releasing the frozen assets in the U.S. that belong to the Libyan people," Aujali said. "We need immediate access to these resources to avert a further humanitarian crisis."
On the street, we met some Libyan-Americans, including Heba Benomran (pictured below), who told us she had driven all morning from Columbus, OH, to attend the ceremony. Heba carried a message, "Thank you America," printed on a sign and she's even set up a website to sell Libyan rebel apparel.
Inside the embassy, Aujali took questions from the press on the next steps for the TNC effort in Washington. He said he was confident that State and Treasury Departments would soon deliver good news to the TNC on releasing some frozen funds. He said he expects a current drive to unfreeze international assets that are frozen by United Nations Security Council resolutions to succeed as well. The U.N. sanctions committee is reviewing that issue now.
But Aujali disagreed with the State Department's repeated insistence that the money goes to humanitarian purposes only, and not toward buying weapons.
"If Qaddafi was killing his people with potatoes and eggs, I would accept that. But Qaddafi is killing his people with real weapons. We must have arms to defend ourselves," he said, adding that the TNC has the option of getting arms from other countries.
We found two U.S. officials at the event: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Easter Affairs and Ambassador-designate to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski, and Alyce Abdalla, the current desk officer for Libya at the State Department.
"It's a good day for Libyans and a good day for Americans," Krajeski told The Cable. What about the funds? "We're working on it," he said.