WASHINGTON — The Obama administration scrambled on Monday to support rebels in an unaccustomed role — national governance — as the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Libyan army raised fears of chaos and reprisal killings in the nearly liberated capital.
U.S. diplomats hastily conferred with opposition leaders and allies on blueprints for maintaining order and distributing relief supplies in Tripoli, even as rebel fighters pressed their search for Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan autocrat whose ouster became a central U.S. foreign policy objective.
The loyalist retreat over the weekend prompted a rush to implement Libyan transition plans drawn up with U.S. and allied support over the past five months. White House officials, mindful of the looting and anarchy that quickly overshadowed the U.S. military victory in Baghdad in 2003, pressed opposition leaders to act quickly to prevent lawlessness and restore basic services.
President Barack Obama, in a broadcast speech, warned of "huge challenges" ahead for the opposition alliance, even as he hailed the apparent end of Gadhafi's rule.
"This is not over yet," Obama said in an audio statement from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing with his family.
The president praised NATO and Arab allies, crediting them with preventing "wholesale massacres of innocent civilians." To Americans, he noted, "All of this was done without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground."
As he spoke, top aides consulted frequently with leaders of the main opposition alliance as it sought to consolidate its control over the capital. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke by phone early Monday with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the opposition Transitional National Council, to discuss protection of Libyan civilians as rebel troops pounded remaining loyalist strongholds in Tripoli and surrounding towns. Afterward she spoke with officials from European and Middle Eastern countries on ways to coordinate financial and practical support for a post-Gadhafi Libya.
State Department officials separately took steps to free up some of the nearly $30 billion in frozen Libyan government assets.
For an administration that had been heavily criticized over its Libya policy, the sudden breakthrough offered a sense of vindication. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland credited the administration with building and maintaining a "community of common action of size and scope that is quite unprecedented in the modern era."