Saturday, December 17, 2011

Secretary of Defense visits Tripoli Graves

TRIPOLI, LIBYA - DECEMBER 17: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (2R) leaves his challenge coin on a grave stone during the wreath laying ceremony with U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Crets (C) and Gen. Carter Ham (2L), Commander U.S. Africa Command, at the grave site of 13 U.S. Navy sailors at the Protestant Cemetery on December 17, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. Panetta visited the grave site of the sailors who were killed on the USS Intrepid in 1804. Panetta is the first U.S. Defense Secretary to visit Libya. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images)

Interesting how a small band of concerned citizens, screaming loud
enough, can alter the travel schedule of the US Secretary of Defense.

By Lolita Baldor
Associate Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in
Tripoli Saturday, taking advantage of the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in
an eight-month civil war to become the first Pentagon chief to set
foot on Libyan soil.

Panetta also made an emotional visit to what historians believe is the
gravesite of 13 U.S. sailors killed in 1804. Those deaths were caused
by the explosion of the U.S.S Intrepid, which was destroyed while
slipping into the Tripoli harbor to attack pirate ships that had
captured an American frigate.

Panetta walked into the small walled cemetery with more than two dozen
gravestones, and over a corner where five large but simple white
gravestones mark the graves of the American sailors. The stones read
"Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of
the United States Ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbour, Sept. 4, 1804."

Panetta placed a wreath at the site, and then observed a moment of
silence. He also left behind a memento of his visit on top of one of
the stones, a Secretary of Defense souvenir coin.

TRIPOLI, Libya — Pentagon chief Leon Panetta made history Saturday as the first American defense secretary to set foot on Libyan soil and said he hoped the post-Moammar Gadhafi government could assemble the country's militias into "one Libya."

Panetta has indicated that the U.S. will give the Libyans some time to gain control of the militias that overthrew Gadhafi during an eight-month civil war before determining how to help the fledgling government.

At a news conference in the capital with Prime Minister Abd al-Raheem al-Keeb, Panetta said that he was confident that the new Libyan government is reaching out to all groups and would bring them together as part of "one Libya."

Panetta, who was joined by Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said the United States would provide whatever assistance the Libyans needed.

The prime minister told reporters that he was optimistic that the new government in Tripoli could deal the militias.

Panetta's route into the city took him past lush orange groves, carcasses of bombed buildings and the charred and graffiti-covered compound once occupied by Gadhafi.

Flying from rooftops were the green, black and red flags, adorned with a star and a crescent, belonging to the new government. Amid the Arabic graffiti splashed across the walls of the compound was a short comment in English: "Thanx US/UK."

Panetta also made an emotional visit to what historians believe is the gravesite of 13 U.S. sailors killed in 1804. Those deaths were caused by the explosion of the U.S.S, Intrepid, which was destroyed while slipping into the Tripoli harbor to attack pirate ships that had captured an American frigate.

Panetta walked into the small walled cemetery with more than two dozen gravestones and made his way to a corner where five large but simple white gravestones mark the graves of the American sailors. The stones read, "Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the United States Ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbour, Sept. 4, 1804."

Panetta placed a wreath at the site and then observed a moment of silence. He also left behind a memento of his visit on top of one of the stones, a U.S. secretary of defense souvenir coin.

While eager to encourage a new democracy that emerged from Libya's Arab Spring revolution, the U.S. is wary of appearing as trying to exert too much influence after an eight-month civil war.
At the same time, however, leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere worry about how well the newly formed National Transitional Council can resolve clashes between militia groups in the North African nation.

Ahead of Panetta's visit, the Obama administration announced it had lifted penalties that were imposed on Libya in February to choke off Gadhafi's financial resources while his government was using violence to suppress peaceful protests.

The U.S. at the time blocked some $37 billion in Libyan assets, and a White House statement said Friday's action "unfreezes all government and central bank funds within U.S. jurisdiction, with limited exceptions."

Recovery of the assets "will allow the Libyan government to access most of its worldwide holdings and will help the new government oversee the country's transition and reconstruction in a responsible manner," the White House said.

But the continuing violence in Libya, including recent skirmishes between revolutionary fighters and national army troops near Tripoli's airport, reflects the difficulties that Libya's leaders face as they try to forge an army, integrating some of the militias and disarming the rest.

Officials acknowledge that process could take months, and that they can't force the militias to go along.

By traveling to Libya, Panetta was highlighting the different approaches that the U.S. and other countries are taking with respect to rebellions in the region against tyrannical leaders.

The U.S. and NATO provided months of military power and assistance to the Libyan rebels, but officials have made it clear they do not intend to do the same in Syria despite the furor over President Bashar Assad's crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators.

Panetta, who met with Turkish officials Friday, said they did not discuss any specific steps to increase pressure on Assad to step down.

But they talked about the need to work together with other nations to "get Assad to do the right thing."

At some point, he said, he believes that the type of uprisings that happened in Libya and elsewhere across the Middle East will take place in Syria.

Panetta Arrives for Historic Visit to Tripoli
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

TRIPOLI, Libya, Dec. 17, 2011 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived here today to congratulate the Libyan people for their accomplishments and determine what help the United States can offer to help them succeed as they move forward.

Panetta became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Libya, arriving just two months after the Libyans overthrew Moammar Gadhafi’s repressive regime that had gripped the country since 1969.

He is scheduled to meet with Libyan Prime Minister Abd al-Raheem Al-Keeb and Defense Minister Usama Al-Jwayli. Army Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, is slated to accompany him.

“I hope to pay tribute to [the Libyans] and to offer them whatever support we can to assist them in ensuring that they can put the institutions of democracy in place [and] give the Libyan people the opportunity to vote for a representative government,” the secretary told reporters traveling with him before arriving here.

Panetta said during a media roundtable yesterday in Ankara, Turkey, that the Libyans will need time to assess exactly what their needs are and what steps they need to take moving forward.

“The last thing you want to do is try to impose something on a country that has just gone through what the Libyans have gone through,” he said. “They have earned the right to try to determine their future. They have earned the right to try to work their way through the issues they are going to have to confront.”

But in doing so, Panetta said the United States, along with NATO and the international community, all want to provide Libya what it needs to succeed. “And we will do whatever we can to encourage them to move in the right direction,” he said.

The hope, the secretary said, is to enable the Libyans to establish a democracy that will be “another symbol and indication that the Middle East should be headed in for the future.”

In many ways, Libya represents “the ultimate of what the ‘Arab spring’ should be about,” Panetta said. “The Libyan people were able to bring down Gadhafi, … with support of the NATO mission,” he said. “It represents a situation where that country is handed back to the Libyan people.”

Panetta called the developments in Libya an indication of changes taking place throughout the region.

“This is a turning point that we have all been a part of,” he said. “Most importantly, a lot of this is due … to the sacrifice and commitments of our troops and the great work that they have done over these last few years.”

Panetta is expected to extend U.S. hopes of resetting what previously had been a turbulent relationship with Gadhafi’s military, and to offer U.S. security assistance down the road in an effort to develop a new defense and security relationship with Libya, a senior defense official traveling with him said.

The leaders are likely to discuss ways they can cooperate on issues of mutual concern such as weapons proliferation, the security of not-yet-destroyed chemical weapons stocks and regional terrorism, the official said. The discussions also are expected to include Libya’s efforts to reconcile disparate militias that were able to cooperate to topple Gadhafi, but have not yet coalesced into a united military force.

“We stand ready as this new interim government is still in stages of getting itself organized to respond to their requests for assistance and consolidating the different militias into a unified military force,” he said.

The Defense Department has a small number of people attached to the U.S. Embassy in Libya who are assisting in explosive ordnance disposal, providing advice on security chemical weapons stocks and helping establish embassy security, the official said.

The secretary also will lay a wreath at the graves of U.S. sailors lost aboard the USS Intrepid Sept. 4, 1804.

Their mission was to use the explosives-laden Intrepid as a floating bomb to destroy pirate ships moored in Tripoli harbor during the First Barbary War. The vessel is believed to have been intercepted as it entered the harbor, with the violent explosion that ensued killing Navy Lt. Richard Somers, its commander, and his dozen officers and sailors.

Their remains were transferred to the current graveyard in 1949. (sic 1930)

The 2012 Defense Authorization Act, as passed by the House in December, includes a provision that requires the Defense Department to begin the process of identifying and returning Somers and his sailors to the United States.

Specifically, the bill instructs the secretaries of defense and the Navy to report back to Congress on the feasibility of recovering and positively identifying the missing commandos.

Leon Panetta, defense secretary, offers support to new Libya in historic visit

By Craig Whitlock, Published: December 17

TRIPOLI, Libya — Nine months after American and NATO air power was deployed to rescue a faltering rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made a historic visit here Saturday to offer symbolic support for Libya’s post-revolutionary government as it tries to stabilize the North African country.

Panetta, who took office in July as the civil war was raging, is the first Pentagon chief to visit Libya after decades of hostile relations between Washington and Gaddafi. His trip was the latest effort by the Obama administration to encourage Libya’s fledgling government to move quickly to transition to democracy even as the United States seeks to avoid the appearance of interfering in the country’s volatile internal affairs.

“Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people,” Panetta said at a news conference at the Libyan Defense Ministry. “This will be a long and difficult transition, but I have every confidence that you will succeed in realizing the dream of a government of, by and for all people and achieve a more secure and prosperous future.”

Panetta’s message to Libyan leaders echoed comments he had made two days before in Baghdad, where he led a ceremony to markthe end of the war in Iraq. Although their circumstances differ, both countries are struggling to adopt democratic practices after the U.S. military ousted, or helped oust, a long-serving autocrat.

Panetta met with Libya’s new prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, as well as its defense minister, Osama al-Jwayli. He was accompanied by Army Gen. Carter Ham, the chief of the U.S. military’s Africa Commandand a leading player in NATO’s Libya campaign. The defense secretary said Washington was “prepared to provide whatever assistance that Libya believes it needs” but added that he did not discuss specific aid proposals with Libyan leaders. “They have to determine what their needs are,” he said.

Panetta also laid a wreath at a small cemetery in Tripoli that for two centuries has been the resting place for five American sailors. The sailors were part of a 13-member crew who died during a mission by the USS Intrepid against a Barbary pirate fleet in Tripoli’s harbor in 1804.

Some of the sailors’ descendants have sought for years to have their remains returned to the United States. The Navy favors leaving the cemetery undisturbed, calling it the “final resting place” of the sailors. Congress, however, passed a measure last week calling on the Defense Department to study the possibility of bringing the sailors’ remains home.

Panetta did not comment publicly during his visit to the cemetery, which sits on a bluff overlooking Tripoli’s harbor. In a statement issued afterward, he praised the Libyan government’s efforts to preserve the grave sites. The cemetery had been in a dilapidated condition for many years until a restoration project was completed in January, when Gaddafi was still in power.

Panetta made his brief stopover in Libya despite continuing unrest, including outbreaks of gunfire at the Tripoli airport earlier in the week. Rival militias that had banded together to oust Gaddafi are vying for control and influence in the new government.

Keib said he reassured Panetta that the government was doing its best to unify the militias under a single banner. “We know how serious this issue is,” he said. “We know it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Okay, put down your arms and go back to work.’ ”

Panetta is the second member of Obama’s Cabinet to visit Libya in two months, following an appearance in Tripoli by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Oct. 19, two days before Gaddafi was killed by rebel forces.

Although U.S. and NATO bombing helped drive Gaddafi from power, the Obama administration avoided deploying U.S. ground forces to Libya. Only a handful of U.S. military personnel are in the country, assigned to security duties at the U.S. Embassy.

One priority for Libya’s new leaders has been to gain access to billions of dollars in assets that Gaddafi had stored in overseas accounts. On Friday, the White House announced that it has lifted remaining sanctions against Gaddafi’s government and that it will unfreeze an estimated $37 billion in Libyan government assets under U.S. jurisdiction.

But has the whitewash of the first USS Intrepid begun?

The following statement may be attributed to Michael Caputo, spokesman for the Intrepid families:

"The families of the crew of the first USS Intrepid are deeply moved by the 'emotional visit' of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to the squalid graves of their forebears. They have worked for more than two centuries to bring their boys home and his visit proves to us that our efforts are finally on the minds of the highest-ranking leaders of our nation. We are all very thankful.

We respect the need for hyperbolic oratory when our nation is building a new diplomatic relationship. However, it is important to correct Secretary Panetta's remarks today: the graves of the Intrepid crew were never properly cared for - by Americans or Libyans - and the cemetery was only recently renovated, some of it in preparation for his visit. Our sources in Tripoli tell us Americans were feverishly working inside the locked cemetery sprucing up the place before he arrived. Reporters who requested access before the cleanup were denied.

The Pentagon and the State Department might be able to shore up the collapsed walls of the cemetery, fix grave markers shattered for centuries, and even build new bridges between our nations, but they can never whitewash history. After being dragged through the streets of Tripoli, fed to wild dogs and then dumped in mass graves, the sons of the Intrepid families were never properly honored for their sacrifice. They are not today.

The Department of Defense has long ignored the facts surrounding the disposition of the crew of the first Intrepid. In fact, the Pentagon's own news service got it wrong again today: our heroes remains were not "transferred to the current graveyard in 1949." The cemetery was built up around the existing graves of the Intrepid officers in 1830; the enlisted men were recovered from a mass grave by an Italian road crew and transferred to the grounds in the 1930s. The Pentagon does not have their facts straight and they haven't for two hundred years.

The Intrepid families have never stopped begging for the return of their sons and our contemporary efforts resulted in a Congressional directive wrapped into the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Pentagon to present its first factual report on repatriation in 270 days. We hope the families' deep research and abiding concerns will be included in this report. We fear the Secretary's remarks today and the continued errors in DoD reporting do not indicate they will end 207 years of blocking repatriation.

We hope Secretary Panetta's visit to the graves left neglected for centuries moves him to join our effort to repatriate our nation's first Navy heroes, honored as they deserve. In many ways, it is now left up to him and boils down to a simple question: will he honor the historical wishes of the Intrepid families to bring them home where they belong?"

DECEMBER 17, 2011

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