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Veteran United States diplomat takes up Libya ambassador post

WASHINGTON -- A month after the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Washington said Thursday it has brought a veteran diplomat out of retirement to head up its Libya team vowing to help build the new democracy.

Arabic speaker Laurence Pope, who left the Foreign Service in 2000, arrived Wednesday in Tripoli to join staff there still shocked by the loss of Stevens, who was killed in the Sept. 11 militant attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Stevens, killed along with three other diplomatic staff when armed men invaded and torched the Benghazi building, was the first U.S. diplomat to be killed on active duty since 1979.

Pope will have a tricky job, taking over at a time when staffing at the Tripoli embassy has been reduced for security reasons, and the U.S. administration has yet to decide whether to reopen a consulate in Benghazi.

His every move is likely to face scrutiny at home too, with Republicans having seized on the attack to slam U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, accusing it of huge security failures.

Two security officers told a heated House of Representatives hearing on Wednesday that the consulate was a sitting target with weak security as requests for extra staffing were denied despite a rising al-Qaida threat.

Less than four weeks from the Nov. 6 presidential elections, Libya and the administration's response to the upheavals caused by the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy movements have become fodder in the bitter White House race.

But despite last month's brutal attack, the United States has vowed to stay the course in Libya as it seeks to build a new government following the ousting of longtime autocratic leader Moammar Gadhafi last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked Pope to come out of retirement to take up the post as charge d'affaires in Libya pending a decision on who to nominate as the next ambassador, officials said.

“As you can imagine, we wanted to have somebody with significant experience in the region, a very seasoned diplomat, at this complex time and as we continue to work with the Libyans,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists.

She said Pope had been given a warm welcome by the Libyan government, which appreciated “his seniority and deep background” knowledge.

In an earlier statement, Nuland said the appointment “emphasizes the commitment of the United States to the relationship between our two countries and to the people of Libya as they move forward in their transition to a democratic government.”

Pope's role as the top American diplomat in Libya will be “conducting relations with the government of Libya, reaching out to civil society,” as well as being “responsible for ensuring that our various programs with the government of Libya are operating,” Nuland told reporters.

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