U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Thursday that Libyans who met a team of visiting senators had expressed gratitude and want to repay the international community that rallied around Moammar Gadhafi's opponents and played a key role in the dictator's defeat.
The South Carolina senator traveled to Tripoli with three other Republican senators as part of the highest-profile American delegation since rebels, backed by NATO airstrikes that decimated Gadhafi's military forces, battled their way into the capital late last month and forced Gadhafi into hiding.
"There is a desire here by the Libyan people to make sure that those who helped will get paid back," Graham told journalists in the capital after he and the other senators _ John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Marco Rubio of Florida _ toured Martyrs' Square, formerly named Green Square and the site of frequent Gadhafi speeches.
The four U.S. lawmakers also met with the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, and other high-ranking officials of the group that is now governing Libya.
The senators said American companies are hoping to tap into the wealth of oil and natural resources in Libya, which under Gadhafi long faced sanctions that prohibited much business.
"I think that American investors are more than eager to come invest here in Libya and we hope and believe that they will be given an opportunity to do so," McCain said.
He acknowledged, however, that it would be difficult for companies to get started until the country is completely secure. Gadhafi loyalists continue to put up a fierce resistance in three strongholds in central and southern Libya.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was thrilled to be in Tripoli. In April, he traveled to the then-opposition's eastern stronghold of Benghazi, where he called the rebels "patriots" and "heroes."
"I've dreamed of returning to a liberated capital of a free Libya ever since I visited Benghazi in April and our visit to Tripoli today has been exhilarating and hopeful," McCain said
He called the Libyans an inspiration for people in other countries who are suffering under authoritarian regimes, singling out Iran, Syria, China and Russia, but warned of a "rocky road" ahead amid concerns about the proliferation of weapons and the inability of the new leadership to form a government that could pave the way for elections.
"The people of Libya today are inspiring the people in Tehran, in Damascus and even in Beijing and Moscow," he said. "They continue to inspire the world and let people know that even the worst dictators can be overthrown and be replaced by freedom and democracy."
He expressed confidence in the National Transitional Council, which is acting as Libya's government, and urged them to bring armed groups under the control of a central authority.
U.S. relations with Gadhafi's regime had undergone a seismic shift in recent years after the longtime Libyan leader renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and agreed to pay compensation to the families of victims of 1980s terror attacks, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, blamed on Libyan agents.
The senators talked to the country's new rulers about the need for justice in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people, many of them Americans.
Scotland has asked the new transitional leaders of Libya for help tracking down those responsible now that Gadhafi is no longer in power.
McCain said he is confident the new Libyan government will help. "We'd like to know who else was connected with this," he said.
Kirk, of Illinois, said there were conflicting reports about the severity of the illness of the only suspect convicted in the attack, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was freed on compassionate grounds in 2009.
He said it's up to the Libyan people, but he believes al-Megrahi should face further justice.
Libya's acting justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, said earlier this week that there was no reason to drag al-Megrahi back to court but he was willing to probe the possible involvement of others in the attack.
The trip contrasted sharply to the last visit by McCain and Graham to Tripoli in August 2009, when they met with Gadhafi and his son Muatassim to discuss the possible delivery of non-lethal defense equipment as the erratic Libyan leader was moving to normalize his relations with the international community.
According to a classified document released by WikiLeaks, the delegation, which included McCain, Graham and two other senators, Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, held back-to-back meetings with Muatassim.
During that visit, McCain characterized the overall pace of the bilateral relationship as excellent during and noted the drastic changes over the previous five years. He also assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security, the WikiLeaks cable said.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.