WASHINGTON – The volatile situation in Libya will be the first item on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's packed agenda during her latest around-the-world diplomatic tour.
Clinton departs Washington on Thursday for Turkey, where she will attend a meeting in Istanbul of senior officials from the more than 40 nations supporting NATO's operation to protect Libyan civilians.
The fourth meeting of foreign ministers from the so-called Contact Group on Libya will be looking not only at stepping up pressure on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to leave power, but also boosting support to the cash-starved opposition Transitional National Council.
Clinton has participated in two previous Contact Group meetings at which the countries represented, including the U.S., have moved to formalize ties with the council and provide it with financial and other assistance. The Obama administration has delivered humanitarian aid and has been working for weeks with Congress to free up some of more than $30 billion in frozen Gadhafi regime assets in U.S. banks to support the council. But, much to the council's disappointment, Washington has not yet recognized the group as Libya's legitimate government.
Friday's Contact Group meeting comes as U.S. officials say pressure appears to be building against Gadhafi's regime after months of apparent stalemate between his forces and rebels. While the battle is far from won, the officials point to three key indicators: dwindling fuel supplies, a cash crisis and reports of low morale among regime troops. That assessment came as French authorities said Libyan emissaries are seeking sanctuary for Gadhafi, who has survived sustained bombing by NATO war planes and U.S. armed drones since mid-March.
Clinton has steered clear of discussing intelligence reports from the ground or what she may be bringing to the table in Istanbul, but said Wednesday that she believed that Gadhafi's days in power "are numbered." She also said Gadhafi associates were sending mixed messages about whether he would be willing to step down.
"We are still getting contradictory signals from Col. Gadhafi's camp," she told reporters at a joint news conference with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. "He has yet to meet the red lines that are set by the international community to cease violence against his people, withdraw his forces and step down from power.
"So although neither of us can predict to you the exact day or hour that Gadhafi will leave power, we do understand and agree that his days are numbered," Clinton said. "We will continue to work closely with our international partners, including Russia, to increase the pressure on him and his regime, and we will keep looking for a way to achieve a cease-fire, end the military action, give the Libyan people a chance to plot their own way forward."
After the focus on Libya at the Contact Group, Clinton will meet Saturday with Turkish officials for talks that are expected to concentrate on Middle East peace efforts, Turkey's strained relations with Israel, Iran and the brutal crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators in Syria. Clinton will also attend an event in Istanbul aimed at promoting religious tolerance with the head of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents Muslim interests.
From Turkey, Clinton travels to Greece for talks on Sunday that are likely to be dominated by that country's financial crisis and Greek relations with Turkey and its neighbors in the Balkans.
She will then head further east, to India, to resume the U.S-India Strategic Dialogue. That will probably focus on counterterrorism, particularly after Wednesday's bombings in Mumbai, and India's role in promoting stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Clinton said Wednesday that she would not be deterred from visiting India by the latest attacks.
"I believe it is more important than ever that we stand with India, deepen our partnership and reaffirm our commitment to the shared struggle against terrorism," she said.
While in India, Clinton will become the first secretary of state to visit the southeastern port city of Chennai, where she will deliver a speech on U.S.-Indian relations and India's role as a leader in South Asia. Chennai is home to numerous and growing U.S. investments. In May, Ford Motor Co. said it would spend $72 million to expand an engine plant in the city to support sales and export growth and help the company build more fuel-efficient engines for India and other markets.
After India, Clinton will move to Indonesia for a Southeast Asian regional security conference on the resort island of Bali. In addition to meetings with Pacific Rim foreign ministers, she plans to address developments in the South China Sea, where the U.S. has expressed concerns about increasing Chinese belligerence, the Obama administration's engagement policy with the military leaders in Myanmar and efforts to get North Korea back to nuclear disarmament talks.
Clinton will also visit Hong Kong to deliver a major speech on the administration's promotion of U.S. companies overseas and the need for foreign countries to abandon protectionist policies. She will then make a brief trip to southern mainland China and return to the United States on July 25.