TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The United States gave Libya's new rulers a very visible show of support on Wednesday when a senior envoy visited the capital and praised their efforts to assert control of armed groups three weeks after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.
Washington has taken a back seat to France and Britain in NATO-led air strikes that helped the ragtag rebel coalition take Tripoli last month. And, wary of a backlash after their military takeovers in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials are at pains to avoid seeming to take control of oil-rich Libya.
But the visit of Jeffrey Feltman put an American accent firmly in the centre of a Tripoli recovering from six months of civil war. The State Department's top Middle East diplomat assured interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil of continued NATO support and played down fears of a hostile Islamist takeover.
Putting a spotlight on the U.S. role in what is seen so far in the West as a successful intervention comes at a welcome time for the Obama administration as it grapples with complex problems elsewhere in the Middle East.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, glad for a fillip to his re-election campaign from helping topple Gaddafi, is expected to visit Tripoli in person soon.
Western powers, which had reconciled with Gaddafi in recent years, are now competing with each other and with the likes of China and Russia for the favour of his successors, looking for trade deals on oil and gas and a share of building contracts.
Feltman said Washington remained committed to NATO and Gulf Arab air operations to thwart any threats to civilians, as Gaddafi's fugitive spokesman renewed claims that the ousted strongman was still in the country and rallying his forces for a fightback in several stubborn loyalist bastions.
Feltman also praised Abdel Jalil's National Transitional Council (NTC) for progress towards bringing the army, police and a host of local and partisan militias under its control.
Foreign powers are worried about the risk of anarchy after 42 years of Gaddafi's eccentric personal rule at odds with much of the world. The European Union on Wednesday demanded an end to arbitrary killings and detentions by both sides and especially to attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans, who are widely accused of having fought for Gaddafi.
Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, said: "We remain encouraged by growing command and control over security and police forces. We understand that this is a difficult task.
"Libya's interim leadership is solidifying the steps and integrating militias under one civilian authority."
Asked about the strength of Islamist groups in the rebel coalition which overthrew Muammar Gaddafi last month, he said: "We are not concerned that one group will be able to dominate the aftermath of what has been a shared struggle."
He also said he expected the new rulers in Tripoli to "share concerns about terrorism" with Washington. Some senior Islamists among the rebel forces have in the past been allied with enemies of the United States, though they have since welcomed cooperation with the Western military alliance.
Sarkozy may visit Tripoli and Benghazi, the seat of February's uprising, on Thursday, a French magazine said.
Historic tensions between the two cities -- capitals of provinces that were united as Libya only under Italian colonial rule in the 1930s -- are a concern for those hoping the NTC can rapidly establish democratic government nationwide.
NTC deputy chairman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga told Reuters in Benghazi that the chairman, Abdel Jalil, and the NTC would remain based in their eastern stronghold, rather than in the capital in the west, at least until the "liberation" of those cities remaining in the hands of Gaddafi's supporters.
The declaration of liberation, which some NTC officials have said might also be dependent on Gaddafi being found or killed, is a key signal to start a timetable for drawing up a new constitution and elections. There is already much debate within Libya about how such political decisions are to be made.
GADDAFI HOLDING OUT
Gaddafi has not been seen in public since June. His spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, speaking on a satellite phone from an undisclosed location, told Reuters the 69-year-old leader was still in Libya, in good spirits and ready to fight back.
"The leader is in good health, in high morale ... of course he is in Libya," said Ibrahim, who declined to give his own location. "The fight is as far away from the end as the world can imagine. We are still very powerful, our army is still powerful, we have thousands upon thousands of volunteers."
While his opponents would scoff at the idea of a successful Gaddafi comeback, they have been concerned at the difficulties they have had in taking the final bastions of his support.
Interim government forces are besieging one of those last bastions, Bani Walid, 180 km (110 miles) south of Tripoli, along with Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha, deep in the southern desert.
After a week of fighting NTC forces at Bani Walid have been urging people to leave before they try to storm the town. Scores of cars packed with families left Bani Walid on Wednesday as NTC forces broadcast messages telling them to go and handed out free petrol to help them evacuate.
"There is a lot of random shooting. It is much safer for my children to leave. Gaddafi militia men do not want to negotiate," Fathalla al-Hammali, 42, said, driving away from the town with his three young children.
Daw Saleheen, who is heading regional forces battling for control of Bani Walid, said he was ready to use heavy weapons against an estimated 1,200 loyalists, who had placed rockets and mortars on civilian homes as well as dozens of 200 snipers.
"We know all their positions," Saleheen told reporters on the northern outskirts of his home town. "We have sent a message to all civilians that if they can they must leave now."
Independent information from the town is limited to comments from refugees. Previous deadlines set by the NTC forces have passed with little change in the stalemate.
Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown. His wife and three of his children fled across the desert to Algeria. Another son, Saadi, who once played professional soccer, has joined some other high-level loyalists in Niger, further to the south.
A Niger government source said on Tuesday that Saadi had been transferred from the northern desert town of Agadez to the capital Niamey late on Tuesday: "He is in a secure place. Like the others he is here on humanitarian grounds. He is not being sought after. He is under surveillance, not imprisoned."
However, the source added that he was not free to move.
Gaddafi and another son Saif al-Islam, long the heir apparent, are wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC), though NTC officials have said Libyans would like to try them first.
(Reporting by Maria Golovnina near Bani Walid, Libya, Alexander Dziadosz and Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Emma Farge in Benghazi, Mark John and Bate Felix in Niamey and Barry Malone and Sylvia Westall in Tunis; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff)