TRIPOLI U.S. officials in Libya have begun to look for recruits for a commando force which they plan to train to fight militants, a former commander of Libyan rebels who toppled Muammar Gaddafi said on Tuesday.
After a wave of anti-American violence in the Arab world in September during which the U.S. ambassador to Libya died in an Islamist militant attack, President Barack Obama took measures to improve the security of U.S. diplomatic installations in the region.
A team of about 10 Americans from the embassy in Tripoli visited a paramilitary base in the eastern city of Benghazi 10 days ago to interview and get to know potential recruits, according to militia commander Fathi al-Obeidi.
"The American team asked us for a tour of our base and we granted them permission to walk around freely," he told Reuters.
"They stood with many of our men taking down information. They asked them about their ages, backgrounds, their tribal loyalties. They wanted to know what kind of training they had received, if any."
The Pentagon declined comment on any recent visit by a U.S. delegation to Benghazi, referring queries to the State Department. At the same time, it acknowledged a need to develop Libyan special operations forces.
"But a final decision on the program has not been made, and many details, like the ultimate size, composition and mission of the force are still to be determined," said Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory.
Obeidi is a commander with Libya's Shield, an umbrella group for various armed militias that refused to join the official army after the war that ousted Gaddafi last year, saying it was still being run by Gaddafi loyalists.
He also helped a team of U.S. marines in September lead a rescue effort that saved a group of Americans hiding in a safe house after an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens died.
Obeidi said the interviewers also took note of the types of uniforms the men were wearing and asked about their opinion on security in Libya.
He said that the team of American officials included the U.S. charge d'affaires Laurence Pope and the future head trainer of the Libyan special forces team.
"I've been asked to help pick about 400 of these young men between the ages of 19 and 25 to train for this force," he said. "They could be trained either in Libya or abroad."
The force may be required to fight jihadi militants like those accused in the September 11 assault on the consulate.
Gregory said only that U.S. officials in Libya would work with Libyans "to assess their needs and develop options for ways the U.S. can support them through this transitional period."
"Obviously, this is still a fluid environment and everything can change," he said.
ATTACK BECAME ELECTION ISSUE
Obama moved after the September violence to beef up protection of U.S. diplomatic installations in the Arab world, sending in Marine contingents to several embassies and temporarily reducing the number of U.S. personnel at some posts.
The consulate assault became a highly politicized issue in the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney accusing Obama of taking weeks to acknowledge that the incident was a "terrorist" attack, rather than violence prompted by anger over an anti-Islam film.
It occurred during a wave of Muslim protest across the Arab world over the film produced in California, which also sparked violence against U.S. diplomatic missions in Tunisia and Egypt.
However, official emails obtained by Reuters showed that the White House and State Department were advised two hours after the consulate attack that an Islamist militant group had claimed responsibility.
Obama and other U.S. officials have acknowledged that the attack was a "terrorist" act by militants with suspected links to al Qaeda affiliates or sympathizers.
He also vowed to bring to justice those responsible for the Benghazi attack.
But Washington may struggle to decide whom to target. The increasingly diffuse nature of al Qaeda, its allies and sympathizers complicates the job of identifying precisely which individuals and groups were behind the attacks. (Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington. Editing by Mark Heinrich and Christopher Wilson)