WASHINGTON President Barack Obama hailed Libya's election on Saturday as a milestone in its post-Gaddafi democratic transition and pledged that the United States would act as a partner even as he cautioned there would still be difficult challenges ahead.
"After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, today's historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people," Obama said in a statement after Libyans went to the polls in what was widely seen as turning the page on Muammar Gaddafi's autocratic legacy.
Despite the fractious climate in the North African oil-producing state since Gaddafi's ouster last year, Obama made clear that he saw the country's latest political chapter as vindication of his decision to take part in a NATO air assault that helped rebel forces defeat Gaddafi's loyalists.
Obama, running for re-election this November, opted for a cautious strategy that steered clear of a dominant role for the U.S. military and faced criticism from Republican opponents at home for what was described as "leading from behind."
"The United States is proud of the role that we played in supporting the Libyan revolution and protecting the Libyan people, and we look forward to working closely with the new Libya - including the elected congress and Libya's new leaders," Obama said.
"We will engage as partners as the Libyan people work to build open and transparent institutions, establish security and the rule of law, advance opportunity and promote unity and national reconciliation," he said. "There are still difficult challenges ahead and voting needs to be completed in some areas."
Libyans defied violence to cast ballots for a 200-member assembly that will name a prime minister and pave the way for parliamentary elections in 2013.
Results have not been released, but Islamist candidates dominate the field, suggesting Libya will be the next Arab Spring country to see religious parties secure a grip on power.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney)