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Libyan rebels lobbied US energy officials, GOP lawmakers amid oil dispute

Lobbyists for strongman Khalifa Hifter’s forces helped set up meetings with US officials for Libya’s rival government.
Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, equip the military vehicles to get out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori - RC1D53312530

Lobbyists for Libyan strongman Khalifa Hifter’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) met with Republican lawmakers and US officials in charge of energy policy last summer, a newly disclosed lobbying filing reveals.

The filing sheds light on Hifter’s targeting of key US decision-makers even as the United States recognizes the rival UN-backed government in Tripoli as the country’s legitimate authority. Hifter’s LNA hired Texas-based Linden Government Solutions in May for $2 million per year to advocate for the group in its conflict with Tripoli over control of the country’s vast oil wealth.

Lobbying records show that Linden lobbyists Stephen Payne and Joe Fleming met with Joe Uddo, the deputy assistant secretary of energy innovation and market development, and Vincent Trovato, a senior adviser in the department’s Office of International Affairs, in late July during a visit to Washington by a delegation from the Hifter-aligned House of Representatives in Tobruk. Around the same time, the pair also met with Landon Derentz, then the director of energy at the National Security Council (he’s now at the Energy Department), and Elizabeth Litchfield, deputy director of the Office of Maghreb Affairs at the State Department.

The National Security Council declined to comment. The State Department and Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Hifter himself met US officials in November in an undisclosed Middle East country, including deputy national security adviser Victoria Coates, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland and Brig. Gen. Steven deMilliano of US Africa Command. Matthew Zais, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Energy Department’s Office of International Affairs, was also present at the meeting, during which the US officials say they asked Hifter to suspend his monthslong assault on the government in Tripoli.

At the time, the Department of Energy wrote on Twitter that it “encouraged a competitive and transparent Libyan energy sector for all Libyans” and that “Libyans must focus on countering Russian efforts to control Libya’s energy resources.” Zais tweeted that “the US looks to partner with Libya to ensure it emerges from civil conflict able to effectively administer Libyan energy resources for the benefit of all Libyans.”

Linden lobbyists Payne and Fleming also met with five US lawmakers during the July visit by Libyan officials: Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Reps. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., Kevin Hern, R-Okla., and Richard Hudson, R-N.C., as well as staffers for another five, including Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas. In a Facebook post of a photo with Burchett, one of the visiting Libyans wrote that the trip had been successful but that they still hoped to convince Donald Trump to visit their headquarters in eastern Libya.

In addition to US officials, the LNA’s lobbyists have engaged closely with right-wing think tank experts and pundits sympathetic to Hifter’s argument that he is fighting a radical Islamist-dominated cabal in Tripoli. 

Walid Phares, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, met the visiting delegation in July to discuss the issue of migrants, the Islamic State and “extremist ideologies.” Earlier in May, LNA lobbyists met with experts from the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Hudson Institute.

Hifter launched his assault on the capital in April after receiving what he perceived to be a green light from Trump in a phone call with the president. Since then the Libyan factions have engaged in a multimillion-dollar lobbying war, with the Tripoli government hiring Mercury Public Affairs for $2 million a year in April to lobby Congress to condemn “all actors undermining stability and perpetuating violence.”

Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed in the monthslong battle. In June, nine Libyans filed a lawsuit against Hifter in US federal court, claiming that their family members were killed when Hifter “engaged in indiscriminate bombing of civilians.”

The UN has accused Tripoli ally Turkey of violating the international arms embargo on Libya, along with Jordan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which back Hifter. Turkey and Russia have since brokered a cease-fire, which Tripoli accepted Monday in Moscow but Hifter has so far declined to sign.

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