July 14, 2011 / 11:59 PM / 8 years ago

U.S. sees Libya pivot point in anti-Gaddafi struggle

* U.S. seeks to boost Libyan rebel council

* Political, economic, security assistance in focus

* Clinton to discuss Syria crisis with Turkish leaders

By Andrew Quinn

ISTANBUL, July 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Turkey on Friday for a Libya conference marked by growing hopes the international campaign to topple Muammar Gaddafi is nearing its goal and rebel forces can mature into a legitimate government.

Clinton will confer with leaders of the NATO-led coalition to assess the political road map for Libya’s future and discuss further steps to support the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (TNC), officials said. .

“Countries are starting to look past Gaddafi. He’s going to go, and the meeting can be a useful place to take stock of and prepare for that transition,” one senior U.S. officials told reporters aboard Clinton’s plane before landing in Istanbul.

“That’s the way we’re thinking about this meeting: trying to see it as a pivot in this process.”

Clinton’s visit to Turkey will also focus on the crisis in neighboring Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on anti-government protests has fanned fears of dangerous instability in a country at the strategic heart the Middle East.

U.S. officials said Friday’s Libya meeting, the fourth such conference since March, will deepen ties with the TNC and expand its plans to become more inclusive in hopes of winning stronger diplomatic and financial support.

The United States has recognized the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people but has yet to offer full diplomatic recognition — a step which could eventually unlock Libyan assets frozen in the United States for the cash-strapped government-in-waiting in Benghazi.

U.S. officials say they now want more details on exactly what the TNC’s strategy will be for guiding the country to democratic elections and broadening its political base beyond its strongholds in eastern Libya.

“We’ve already said that Gaddafi has lost legitimacy and needs to go, and almost by definition when that happens you’ll be looking toward what the follow-on regime is,” the U.S. official said.

“To the degree that that effects the question of unfreezing assets will obviously be a part of the conversation as well.”

Kuwait and Qatar have already transferred some $100 million to the TNC and other countries have also pledged assistance, but rebel officials say they need more cash fast if they are to assume the full obligations of government.

“STRAWS IN THE WIND”

The Istanbul conference comes as rebel fighters make gains against Gaddafi loyalists on the ground, supported by a nearly four-month campaign of NATO-led air strikes which the U.N. Security Council authorized to protect Libyan civilians.

NATO officials also say Gaddafi’s emissaries are sending out feelers in hopes of a political solution, but Washington remains skeptical the longtime Libyan ruler is ready to halt the violence and step down.

“There are a lot of straws in the wind,” a second U.S. official said. “We are not persuaded yet that any of this is decisive in terms of the red lines that we have laid out.”

Clinton will also meet on Saturday with Turkish leaders, in part to discuss the next steps on Syria which both Washington and Ankara have condemned for Assad’s unrelenting security crackdown on unarmed anti-government protesters.

The Syrian crisis has already sent thousands of refugees across the Turkish border, and U.S. officials say they hope Turkey will follow its tough words on Assad with action - noting that Ankara has yet to match U.S. and European Union sanctions on Assad and other Syrian officials.

U.S. officials hope Clinton’s visit will cement gains after strains last year over Turkey’s attempts to mediate between Iran and Western powers concerned about Tehran’s nuclear program and Ankara’s furious response to an Israeli assault on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed eight Turkish activists.

“Where we had differences we’ve confronted them and have talked it through,” the U.S. official said. “The relationship is now in a very strong place on many issues.” (Editing by Michael Roddy)

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