Sunday, December 18, 2011

Secretary of Defense visits Tripoli Graves

US Secretary of Defense lays wreath and leaves coin at the graves of American sailors in Tripoli

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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