TRIPOLI, Libya, Dec. 17, 2011 — Paying tribute to the courage and determination of the Libyan people, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today joined Libyan leaders in welcoming a new chapter in U.S.-Libyan relations.
Panetta, who made history today as the first defense secretary to visit here, said during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Abd al-Raheem al-Keeb that he’s proud of the role the United States played in helping free Libya from Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
“Even though Operation Unified Protector has ended, I want to stress that the United States … will continue to stand by the Libyan people,” he said, U.S. and Libyan flags behind him.
“To that end” he said, “we are looking forward to building a close partnership with the Libyan government and we stand ready to offer … assistance in the spirit of friendship and the spirit of mutual respect.”
Panetta noted that yesterday the United States lifted most of the sanctions on the Libyan government and released all government and central bank funds within U.S. jurisdiction.
This amounts to about $30 billion. Panetta said the United States didn’t want these funds falling into Gadhafi’s hands, but said he now hopes they will be released soon. “These funds belong to the Libyan people and will now be returned to Libya,” he said.
That means the Libyan government can now access most of its worldwide holdings as the country moves forward with reconstruction and transition.
The secretary said he made clear during his meetings here today with al-Keeb and Defense Minister Usama Al-Jwayli that the United States stands ready to offer security assistance cooperation when the new government identifies its needs.
“I believe that this new and free Libya can become an important security partner of the United States,” he said.
A bloody eight-month civil war now behind it, Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people, the secretary said, and they will chart their future. “They will determine what assistance they require from the United States and the international community,” he said.
The talks did not get into specific forms of support, he told reporters, re-emphasizing that the United States is willing to provide “whatever assistance Libya believes it needs.”
Panetta offered a message to the Libyan people: “The blood that you have spilled has earned you the right to determine your future, to work through the security challenges that you are going to confront.”
Difficult challenges inevitably will be ahead, he recognized. Libya will need to secure weapons stockpiles, confront terrorism, professionalize the army and police, and develop the institutions of a free, representative government.
It also will have to unify the revolutionary forces, an effort Panetta said he feels confident that Libya is taking the right steps to do.
Al-Keeb said he plans to unveil solid programs soon that will attract Libya’s “freedom fighters” and direct their efforts toward fighting now for a better future for Libya.
“It’s not a matter of just saying, ‘Put down your guns and go back to work,’ ” he said.
Panetta noted that the United States, too, experienced revolution and expressed hope that Libya will continue on its current path to enjoy a future of peace, prosperity and freedom.
“This will be a long and difficult transition, but I have confidence that you will succeed in realizing the dream of a representative government and a more secure and prosperous future,” he said.
Al-Keeb said the unfolding of the “Arab spring” in other parts of the region influenced Libya’s revolution, and said they all share the same aspirations of dignity, freedom and respect for human rights.
Panetta emphasized that there’s no rubber-stamp solution to how each country will advance its efforts to put the institutions of government and representative democracy in place.
What’s important, he said, is that each country makes sure it is responding to “what the people want.”
Al-Keeb called the changes these revolutions have brought about “one good sign of why democracy in the Middle East is something everybody needs to support and stand by.”
As he traveled from the airport to the defense ministry for today’s meetings, Panetta passed reminders of Libya’s past and its appreciation for a new future. Graffiti scribbled on a concrete wall surrounding Gadhafi’s damaged former compound declared, simply, “Thanx US/UK.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)