U.S. flag flies again in Tripoli
September 22nd, 2011
05:29 PM ET

U.S. flag flies again in Tripoli

By Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty on assignment in Tripoli, Libya

After an almost nine-month absence, Ambassador Gene Cretz is home in Tripoli, back at the residence he and his wife had to flee, under threat, after Wikileaks released diplomatic documents allegedly containing his blunt comments about Moammar Gadhafi's personal predilections.

"I left Libya suddenly last year under very difficult conditions" Cretz tells guests at an embassy flag-raising ceremony. "At that time I could not imagine I would be returning to a new, free Libya that is brimming with joy, optimism and new-found freedoms."

Gadhafi is in hiding. The revolutionary leadership, the National Transitional Council, is busy trying to form a government. Rebel forces are trying to take out the last Gadhafi strongholds of Bani Wali, Sirte and Sahba.

Ambassador Cretz stands at the podium set up in front of his residence - a cream-colored, red-tiled house that would not seem out of place in suburban Florida.  Two men raise the American flag to the strains of the U.S. National Anthem, followed by the jaunty melody of the new revolutionary national anthem. Libyans stand nearby in the shade of a tree, hands over hearts, and sing along.

The flag is the same one embassy staff hauled down back in February at the old embassy in the city center shortly after the revolution began, suspending operations and destroying or removing any sensitive diplomatic materials.

"It is with great respect and admiration for the courage and resolve of the Libyan people," Cretz says, "that I stand here today with so many who have fought and struggled for freedom and a better future."

In an interview after his speech Ambassador Cretz tells CNN, "I'm stunned and excited by what I see in the streets.  People are telling me they're breathing freedom for the first time."

Officially inaugurated with this ceremony, the residence will serve as the new U.S. embassy, providing office space for the small but growing staff who will serve here.  Five experienced diplomats who served here before the conflict began are back as the core of the operation. More staff will follow.

The old embassy, in the city center, was largely trashed by Gadhafi loyalists who attacked it May 1 after a NATO airstrike killed one of Gadhafi's sons.

The State Department currently is evaluating whether it can be restored or whether diplomats should look for land to build a new embassy. Building a new embassy, however, is at least a three-year proposition, the ambassador says, and the U.S. is eager to get its diplomatic presence up and running quickly.

The first task, Cretz says, is to get diplomacy under way on two tracks: participating with the international community and U.N. representatives on the ground and establishing the bi-lateral U.S.-Libyan relationship.

The embassy will try to provide services to U.S. citizens as quickly as possible; consular services for Libyans will have to wait for now. Currently Libyans must travel to Tunis, Tunisia, to obtain U.S. visas.

American business leaders also are eyeing Libya as a potentially lucrative source of contracts, the ambassador says, and not just in the oil industry.

"We know that oil is the jewel in the crown of the Libyan natural resources," he says, "but, even in the Gadhafi time, they were starting from A to Z in terms of infrastructure, airports."

Approximately two weeks ago Cretz and Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs Jose W. Fernandez held a conference call with 150 American companies that are interested in investment or trade opportunities in Libya.

"I think, with a level playing field, there's going to be tremendous opportunity for American companies," Cretz says, "whether it's in green technology or building roads or airports or everything else and I hope that, in fact, if we're able to get our companies here on a fairly big scale, and we will try everything we can to do that, that this will help improve the situation in the United States with respect to our own job situation."

But after 42 years under a mercurial dictator who destroyed any civilian political structures, can the anti-Gadhafi leadership, the NTC, manage to create a functioning government that represents the interests of all Libyans?

"These people started off with a sense of what democracy was," Cretz tells us. "Very early on they were able to express a vision for their country so they had an idea of the concepts that they wanted to implement. I think the past six months have given them at least some on-the-job training in terms of what institutions are needed and how to establish those building blocks."

"Right now they're in the midst of coalition-building and finding allies and satisfying different voices, which I think is a natural part of the democratic process," he says.

The U.S., he says, stand ready to help with drafting a new constitution or building civil society but he hastens to add the mantra of American diplomats here in Libya: "It will be Libyan-led and it will not be prescriptive on our part."

If the new anti-Gadhafi government can pull this off it could have implications far beyond Libya, Cretz thinks.

"It won't be easy, there will be setbacks, there's no doubt, because you can see even countries like Egypt and Tunisia where there were institutions before, they're still feeling their way. So you well imagine that a country that had no institutions and is attempting to build democracy and attempting to build everything from scratch is going to have some bumps along the way."

"I think if the Libyans can actually incorporate the concepts of democracy and actually work out differences peacefully among themselves, as in a democratic society," he says, "I think it will stand as a tremendous model, not only for the Arab world but perhaps for the whole international community for years to come."

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