The U.S. government and other world powers are prepared to help train and arm forces from the new unity government in Libya to help it fight Islamic State, which has spread rapidly in the turbulent North African nation.
Speaking in Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and other major nations would back the Libyan government’s attempt to win an exemption from a United Nations arms embargo.
Kerry said it was “imperative” for the international community to support the 6-week-old government in Tripoli, which he called “the only legitimate one in Libya and which must now start to work.”
The fledgling government, which arrived by boat from neighboring Tunisia on March 31, “is the only entity that can unify the country,” Kerry said. “It is the only way to generate the cohesion necessary to defeat” Islamic State.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, who appeared with Kerry, said he welcomed the support.
“We’re not talking about international intervention,” he said. “We’re talking about international assistance and training, equipping our troops and training our youth.”
The oil-rich country has faced political chaos and violence since the NATO bombing campaign helped rebels oust and kill longtime ruler Moammar Kadafi in 2011. It remains beset by armed militias, as well as Islamic State, and until recently had two rival governments.
Kerry announced the joint decision after diplomats from more than 20 countries, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, met to discuss the growing extremist threat in Libya.
The U.N. sanctions committee must approve an exemption to the arms embargo, but that is now all but assured.
Kerry said the international community must find a “delicate balance” to prevent arms from falling into enemy hands.
Kerry said support for training and equipping the presidential guard and vetted forces from throughout Libya are part of an aid package that also is intended to help stop the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe.
Islamic State militants have seized a strip of Libya’s central coastline near Sirte, its stronghold. They have opened training bases for foreign fighters and have launched suicide bombings and attacks on oil infrastructure.
U.S. officials recently estimated that the Sunni extremist group has up to 6,000 fighters in Libya, twice as many as a year ago. It is considered Islamic State’s largest and most powerful affiliate outside Syria and Iraq.
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the decision to arm the new government marked “the beginning of a process, not the end of it.”
He said the Obama administration hopes Libyan government forces can begin fighting Islamic State and “securing their own country themselves.”
“That ultimately is the goal, so that the United States and the rest of the international community doesn’t have to come in and fight this fight for them,” he said.
Some national security experts fear that Islamic State is taking root in Libya much as it did in Syria prior to the militants’ blitz across Iraq in early 2014, seizing cities, oilfields, military bases and banks. Sanctuary in Libya could provide another launching pad for terrorist attacks in Europe and North Africa.
The U.S. military, along with British, French and Italian special forces, have monitored the group’s rise in Libya. The Pentagon has launched two airstrikes against them.
In November, F-15 fighter jets killed a militant commander known as Abu Nabil near the eastern city of Derna. Three months later, U.S. jets killed several dozen foreign fighters at a training camp in Sabratha, officials said.
The Pentagon recently sent special operations teams to Libya to gather intelligence and find potential partners to fight the militants, Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, said Monday.
“This small presence of U.S. forces has been trying to identify players on the ground and trying to find out exactly what their motives are,” Cook said. “And that’s to give us a better picture of what’s happening there, because we don’t have a great picture.”
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