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Kirk calls for quick Libyan elections, U.S medical aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 29, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Declaring that "the age of Gadhafi has definitely ended," U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said Thursday that his visit to Tripoli convinced him of the need for Libya's transitional leaders to move quickly to hold elections and build a national army.

Kirk, who traveled to Libya with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and two other Republican senators, said he was concerned that Tripoli alone has 28 separate militias, with no unified military command to control them. Also, the rebels are still fighting Gadhafi loyalists in his home city of Sirte, in Bani Walid and a southern Libyan city.

"The challenges are not over yet," Kirk said in a conference call from Malta, where his flight stopped on the way home. The Senate group that included Kirk was the highest-profile American delegation to visit Libya since Gadhafi's overthrow. The Europeans have been more aggressive with the leaders of France and the United Kingdom visiting the North African nation last week.

"The No. 1 need in the country now is to develop a unified [military] command and control, underneath a formal government" to replace the National Transitional Council now governing Libya. Gadhafi's whereabouts are unclear, but rebels suspect he may be hiding in the nation's southern desert. Kirk predicted that "fighting will probably wrap up within a month" in nearly all of the country, although he conceded that Gadhafi loyalists could later stage raids from camps in neighboring Niger or Algeria.

After meeting with several transitional Libyan leaders, Kirk described them as "mainly a group of very nice, genteel and academic technocrats who very much appeared to be part of the spontaneous movement against Gadhafi."

He said the transition leaders were leaning toward calling for early elections to take advantage of the generally positive public mood. The rebel leaders predicted to the senators that Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood would likely win less than 15 percent of the votes in a national election.

"There were stresses and strains within the coalition," said Kirk, but he added that the U.S. delegation found that "the overall mood [in Tripoli] is overwhelmingly optimistic." He said the visiting senators -- especially McCain, who had been outspoken in his support of the rebels -- received warm public greetings at Martyrs' Square and other sites.

"We have all the makings of a very strong U.S. ally now in Libya," Kirk said, urging the release of billions in seized Gadhafi assets to help the transitional government build a central army and shore up its political support.

Kirk, a Naval Reserve intelligence commander, said he was told that "substantial" efforts are underway to safeguard the high-tech missiles, chemical weapons and nuclear material stockpiled by Gadhafi's regime -- and potentially vulnerable to terrorists. Kirk said he believes "aggressive U.S. action is warranted" to help secure the missiles

Praising the White House and European allies for backing the Libyan rebels, Kirk said, "This was a success by President (Barack Obama) and his team." He suggested that the U.S. could further bolster its standing by providing emergency medical aid -- perhaps in the form of mobile medical units to help treat the 60,000 wounded Libyans now straining the nation's health system. Kirk also suggested opening the two biggest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, to civil flights.

Aside from Kirk and McCain, the GOP senators traveling to Tripoli on Thursday were Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, led the delegation.

Kirk's trip to Libya was the latest of his recess forays into war-torn regions. After a visit to Afghanistan earlier this month, Kirk made waves when he warned that Pakistan is now the primary threat to Afghan stability and called on the U.S. to reconsider its aid to Pakistan.

This spring, Kirk traveled to Somalia and surrounding countries to investigate piracy. Afterward, he warned that some pirate ransoms collected from hijacking cargo ships off the Somali coast were being funneled to an al-Qaida affiliate called al-Shabaab that runs terrorist-training camps.

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