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Libyan rebel ambassador: Get it together, Washington!

The Libyan rebels are running out of money, but the Obama administration and Congress can’t get their act together to provide urgently needed help to those fighting against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, according to the rebel’s top envoy in Washington. In a nondescript office building in northwest Washington, Ali Aujali, the U.S. representative of Libya’s ...

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The Libyan rebels are running out of money, but the Obama administration and Congress can't get their act together to provide urgently needed help to those fighting against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, according to the rebel's top envoy in Washington.

In a nondescript office building in northwest Washington, Ali Aujali, the U.S. representative of Libya's Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC), sits behind an empty desk in a bare office. Once Qaddafi's official ambassador, he defected to the rebels in February and stayed in Washington as their liaison with the U.S. government.

The Libyan rebels are running out of money, but the Obama administration and Congress can’t get their act together to provide urgently needed help to those fighting against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, according to the rebel’s top envoy in Washington.

In a nondescript office building in northwest Washington, Ali Aujali, the U.S. representative of Libya’s Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC), sits behind an empty desk in a bare office. Once Qaddafi’s official ambassador, he defected to the rebels in February and stayed in Washington as their liaison with the U.S. government.

His singular mission in Washington is to convince the administration and Congress to give the rebels access to the frozen assets of the Qaddafi regime. Four months into his mission, he is baffled by the lack of progress.

"To tell you the truth, we are very frustrated by this," he said in an exclusive interview with The Cable. "The TNC is facing a challenge, not only from Qaddafi’s forces who are killing people every day, but also domestically. They are running out of money, they need finances to help the Libyan people to support their families,"

"Libya is not begging anyone for charity, but they must have access to the Libyan people’s money that’s frozen in many countries," he said.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers debate whether the Libyan intervention is a violation of the War Powers Resolution, whether the president consulted Congress sufficiently, and whether the campaign is in the U.S. national interest. But for Aujali and the TNC, that debate is a distraction from the urgent mission of fighting Qaddafi and helping the Libyan people pursue semi-normal lives.

"Here in the U.S., there is a long debate going on, there are many resolutions coming and going. Time is a factor. We should not get lost in the bureaucracy or in political issues or in the election campaign. Human lives are in danger," he said.

Aujali said that the TNC is grateful for U.S. support, and American leadership in the Libya campaign remains critical. He continues to meet with U.S. officials and lawmakers, but he is not encouraged.

"I have no news, I have no timeframe, I have no promises. Every day we have another resolution, another amendment, and we are getting lost in this," he said. "The people in Libya have a limit to their patience with the TNC and we don’t want people to turn against the TNC… This is a serious situation."

It’s true that the Obama administration gave $25 million in non-lethal supplies to the rebels, but that’s not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. By way of comparison, it costs about $148 million per year to provide Libyan students enrolled in colleges in the United States and Canada with funds for textbooks and food, Aujali said.

Plus, the MREs, blankets, and other assistance that the United States has provided is not what the rebels need. They need weapons. Barring that, they need money to buy weapons.

"Qaddafi is not fighting the Libyan people with potatoes," Aujali said.

So what’s the hold up? The TNC’s prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, came to Washington last month and held extensive discussions with the White House, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and several lawmakers. He pleaded for the administration to recognize the TNC as the official government of Libya, which would give them access to the billions in frozen assets.

But the Obama administration refuses to do that because, despite launching an air campaign targeting Qaddafi’s military and command infrastructure, it hasn’t actually abandoned recognition of his regime.

The only other way for the TNC to receive the money is for Congress to pass legislation enabling it to be released, but that process is mired in the legislative process, Aujali said.

For example, for the main bill that would allow about $10 billion of the frozen assets to be used for humanitarian assistance in Libya,  Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) offered an amendment that would require the U.S. to pay itself back for military operations first.  The bill also doesn’t specify that the TNC would have a say in how the money is spent. Both of these issues are huge problems for the TNC.

"This is what Qaddafi is looking for," Aujali said. "This is very dangerous. This is what Qaddafi is telling people in speeches: ‘the West wants your money and your oil.’ If this resolution passes, then Qaddafi has proof."

Aujali wants the United States to increase its involvement, attention, and international leadership in the Libya war, and he said that the international community has gone too far to stop now.

"We are grateful for the support, but we expect more. We need the U.S. to be more involved in the fight against Qaddafi," he said. "Congress has to understand that if this revolution does not succeed, that will be a great disaster.

He framed the Libyan struggle as part of the overall democratic revolution sweeping the Arab world, as President Obama did in his major speech last month.

"Washington must understand that if U.S. foreign policy is to help people to practice democracy, to observe human rights, and to have freedom of speech, than this is one pillar of that foreign policy," he said. "There are people rising against a dictatorship that has ruled them for 42 years and they need your help."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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