By Sam Youngman and Alicia M. Cohn - 10/20/11 07:36 PM EDT
President Obama on Thursday hailed the death of ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and said the U.S. mission in the African nation will “soon come to an end.”
Standing in the Rose Garden about eight months after he joined NATO in aiding Libyan rebels, Obama offered both a defense of his decision to intervene and a warning about the tough days ahead as Libya begins to rebuild its government.
Obama called Thursday a “momentous day in the history of Libya,” and said the Libyan people “now have a responsibility to build an inclusive, tolerant and democratic Libya that stands as the ultimate rebuke of Gadhafi’s leadership.”
Leaders of the council that overthrew Gadhafi said the former dictator was killed after a NATO airstrike on a large convoy that was attempting to flee Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown and last stronghold.
Gadhafi and his aides had apparently been surrounded and were attempting to escape the city in the early morning. After the strike, Gadhafi fled the convoy to hide in a nearby storm drain, where forces with the National Transition Council found him.
The BBC reported that a soldier who was brandishing Gadhafi’s golden pistol said the former dictator shouted, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” upon being discovered. The NTC said Gadhafi was found with 17 aides and family members who were killed or captured. Some of the bodies of the Gadhafi loyalists remain outside the drain, which has been freshly spray-painted with celebratory slogans, The Associated Press reported.
“We’re not on the ground making that assessment but we have confidence in the reports that Gadhafi is dead,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a briefing that followed Obama's remarks.
Carney took a “wait and see” policy toward what he called the “many conflicting reports on what actually happened on the ground.”
A U.S. official confirmed to The Hill Thursday evening that a U.S. asset was used to strike a convoy in the Sirte area, but he could not confirm that it was the NATO asset that prompted Gadhafi to flee his vehicle.
Obama came under fire from Congress and Republican presidential candidates for intervening this summer when Gadhafi’s forces sought to quash the rebellion.
Obama said he made the decision to intervene to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, something he referred to Thursday.
Obama said “the world refused to stand by,” and that because of the efforts of NATO forces, “the dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted.”
The president also sought to highlight the success of the multilateral effort in Libya, which he said had been successful without putting U.S. forces on the ground. Obama did not mention the Iraq war, which he opposed.
“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end,” Obama said.
He did not mention the fight over congressional authorization of the Libya action. Democrats and Republicans criticized the White House for a lack of consultation before the air strikes were ordered, and the House voted down a resolution to authorize the effort.
Carney downplayed the controversy surrounding Obama's choice to intervene in Libya earlier this summer and the responses from some lawmakers indicating Obama did not deserve the credit for Gadhafi's defeat.
“This was a day not to engage in politics but to commend the Libyan people on what they’ve accomplished, and to commend our Armed Forces and the Libyan people for the progress they’ve made,” Carney said.
“History will judge” whether Obama or other leaders deserve credit for taking action and taking the type of action he chose in Libya, he said. "The president believes that the actions taken by him and by NATO have helped the Libyans reach this day. … And that was the goal all along.”
Carney emphasized the Obama’s choice to intervene in Libya earlier this summer had helped the Libyan people successfully overthrow the Gadhafi regime,
Although the White House had no firm timeline for the conclusion of the U.S. or NATO mission in Libya, Carney said they would look to the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) to make a statement regarding next steps soon.
“We will work to assist Libya as they make this transition,” Carney said. “We’ve been heartened by the actions taken by and the statements made by the TNC.”
Obama warned that Libya will experience pain as it struggles to forge a democracy after four decades of dictatorship.
“We are under no illusions,” Obama said. “Libya will travel a long and winding road to democracy.”
This story was posted at 2:31 p.m. and updated at 6:15 p.m.