WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday that the United States was formally recognizing Libya's main opposition group as the country's legitimate government, a move aimed at boosting a floundering rebellion that's approaching its sixth month as Col. Moammar Gadhafi remains in control of the capital.
"The United States views the Gadhafi regime as no longer having any legitimate authority in Libya," Clinton said at a meeting in Istanbul, where more than 30 countries and international bodies signed on to a road map for Gadhafi to give up power and for the rebel Transitional National Council to lead a move to a new democratic government.
"Until an interim authority is in place, the United States will recognize the TNC as the legitimate governing authority for Libya, and we will deal with it on that basis," Clinton said.
The U.S. decision — long awaited by the rebels — paves the way for the rebels to access billions of dollars in Libyan assets in U.S. banks, which had been frozen under sanctions on Gadhafi's regime. Psychologically, it also could boost the morale of the rebels and NATO, which has struggled to support the rebel effort amid deepening divisions among its members over the length of the military campaign.
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"This is a historical day," said Ali Aujaili, the Libyan ambassador to Washington, who represents the rebel council. "This what the council was asking the U.S. to do for some time, and we're very happy this has happened now."
The ever-defiant Gadhafi, in a speech that aired on state television, told a rally of his supporters to "trample on those recognitions, trample on them under your feet. ... They are worthless," news agencies reported.
Whether the move helps the rebels make tactical gains on the battlefield that push Gadhafi out remains unclear. The rebels control most of eastern Libya and pockets in the west, but the inexperienced fighters have been unable to seriously shake Gadhafi's grip on the capital, Tripoli.
Aujaili said the move could speed a decision by the Treasury Department to lift restrictions on Libyan funds held in the United States, which he estimated at $34 billion. The money would help the struggling council pay for salaries, food and medical supplies for the Libyans who were living under their control.
Asked whether the rebels would use the money to buy weapons, Aujaili said: "Do you think that Gadhafi is killing people using tomatoes and potatoes? He's using real weapons. How else can the Libyan rebels protect the people?"
While the battle remains a stalemate, cracks appear to be emerging on both sides. Gadhafi reportedly is running low on ammunition and money amid a near-daily NATO barrage on his air defenses. NATO, for its part, has warned that it's running out of ammunition and political support in allied countries for the campaign, whose U.N. mandate expires in September.
France and Italy — NATO allies who also are among the 30-nation Libya Contact Group, which was established this spring to deal with the crisis in Libya — were the first to recognize the rebel council. More than the United States does, those nations depend on Libya's oil, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the world's supply.
The United States had long withheld recognition for the rebels, with Obama administration officials repeatedly saying they were still gathering information about their makeup. In May, rebel council leader Mahmoud Jibril met in Washington met with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. At that point, the White House issued a statement calling the council "legitimate and credible," but it stopped short of formal recognition.
Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have argued that the U.S. involvement in Libya is a quagmire whose goals are unclear, and that President Barack Obama violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution by not seeking their approval to extend U.S. participation in the NATO campaign beyond its initial 60 days.
Why the administration changed its position now is unclear.
The commander of NATO's Libya campaign, Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said he had intelligence that suggested Gadhafi would raze the capital if forced from power. Speaking from his headquarters in Naples, Italy, Bouchard didn't elaborate except to say: "I can report that the Gadhafi regime has given direction to its forces to destroy certain facilities as they withdraw, such as fuel refineries."
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