WASHINGTON (AFP) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves Sunday for an overseas tour to find ways to help the Libyan opposition oust a third Arab leader and maintain the momentum of democracy revolutions.
The chief US diplomat is due first in Paris for face-to-face talks with Libya's opposition before she travels to Tunisia and Egypt, where she will become the highest-level US official to visit since their presidents were toppled.
In Paris on Monday, Clinton will also meet her counterparts from host France as well as Russia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan to discuss combat-torn Libya amid divisions over calls for foreign military intervention.
Her visit comes as forces loyal to Colonel Moamer Kadhafi have recaptured some lost territory and as top US spy James Clapper has said Kadhafi's regime will prevail in the long run despite US and international calls for him to go.
Abdel Rahman Shalgam, Libya's ambassador to the United Nations who has joined Kadhafi opponents, said in Washington that Clinton will meet in Paris on Monday with Mahmoud Jibril, from the opposition National Council.
On Thursday in Washington, Clinton met Ali Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to Washington who has also defected to the opposition, a Clinton aide told AFP.
Both Shalgam and Aujali said they have met both State Department and Treasury Department US officials. Gene Cretz, the US ambassador to Libya, met last week in Cairo with opposition figures.
The United States has also agreed to name a special envoy to deal with the opposition, but has refrained from recognizing any particular leader or group as it struggles to understand the nebulous movement.
Jumping ahead of its US ally and European partners, France has already recognized the National Council as the legitimate representative of the opposition.
And France, taking a bolder stance on military matters than President Barack Obama's administration, which has repeatedly warned of intervention risks, has called for targeted strikes if Kadhafi bombs his people.
France has also joined Britain in drafting a UN Security Council resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, where US and NATO warplanes would ground Kadhafi's airpower in order to protect civilians and the opposition.
The opposition has been clamoring for such a measure but Russia and China have reservations about the no-fly zone resolution and the United States, Germany and Italy have also taken a cautious line.
Wary of the anti-American fury the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan caused among Arabs, Obama said Friday he was gauging regional support for a no-fly zone.
A day later the 22-member Arab League came out in support of one during crisis talks in Cairo, diplomats there said.
Clinton has said a plan for a no-fly zone over will be presented to NATO on Tuesday.
Washington has already said it would soon send humanitarian aid teams to rebel-held areas of eastern Libya, but cautioned that the move should not be seen as military intervention.
It was unclear if a Kadhafi victory would have put the brakes to the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
However, Clinton is seeking to keep up the momentum for democracy when she visits Egypt and Tunisia following the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February and Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January.
"We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see," Clinton told lawmakers last week as she warned them about Iran's bid for influence in the region.
During her Tuesday to Thursday trip to Cairo and Tunis, she plans to meet the Egyptian and Tunisian people as well as their transitional leaders, as she calls for a larger aid commitment for these countries.
She has called for assistance to Egypt on top of the 150 million dollars for economic and election assistance that she announced last month. Clinton also wants 20 million dollars for Tunisia to "respond to some of their needs."
Senior US senators have been working to create special "enterprise funds" to help Egypt and Tunisia's economies recover from revolutionary turmoil and showcase Washington's goodwill.
Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and John McCain said Thursday they were modeling their legislation on a hugely successful effort to help former communist countries in Europe after the Berlin Wall fell.