Even with the Obama administration's promise not to deploy American "boots on the ground” in Libya, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged on Monday that four U.S. military personnel are in Tripoli as part of a State Department team assessing the possibility of reopening the U.S. embassy there.
"As I understand it the embassy ... was pretty well trashed and they're trying to go back in and see if that facility is still usable, and if it is what needs to be done to bring it back online. If it's not, then what are the options beyond that," Navy Captain John Kirby, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
The Pentagon said the U.S. troops in Libya have no military mission and their presence is in keeping with the NATO mission to protect civilians from attacks by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces – though they are armed in case they need to protect themselves. "This is not an offensive or even a defensive mission," Kirby said, according to Reuters. "They are simply there under the direction of the chief of mission to help with the ... physical facility assessment for the reestablishment of an embassy. That is the limit of their mission."
Two of the military personnel are explosive ordnance experts assigned to ensure there were no explosives left at the site, Kirby said. The other two are “general security.” The troops are expected to leave along with the State Department team once the assessment is complete.
State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that the U.S. hopes the embassy will be opened within weeks, once the damaged facility is deemed to be operational. The U.S. personnel are working to prepare for the return of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, to the country. "We still have quite a bit of work to do to secure appropriate facilities for our folks. Some of the members of that team are sleeping three and four to a room at the moment as we try to establish a permanent place to be until we can get our facilities back together," she said.
Nuland also stressed that the military personnel embedded within the team are in keeping with President Obama’s promise not to deploy ground troops into the Libyan conflict. "When the president made his commitment no boots on the ground, that obviously had to do with entering into the fray between the Qaddafi forces and the Libyan freedom fighters, and that's not what these guys are engaged in," Nuland said.
Otto Kreisher contributed reporting