The Obama administration offered millions of dollars in new aid to Libya as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton encouraged the country's unsteady new leadership to commit to a democratic future free of retribution, and acknowledged in unusually blunt terms that the United States would like to see former dictator Moammar Gadhafi dead.
"We hope he can be captured or killed soon so that you don't have to fear him any longer," Clinton told students and others at a town hall-style gathering in the capital city.
Meanwhile, die-hard forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi launched a surprise counter-attack in his hometown of Sirte.
The visit by Clinton, the most senior U.S. official to come to Tripoli since Gadhafi's 42-year rule ended in August, was marked by tight security, reflecting worries that the new rulers have yet to establish full control over the country.
U.S. officials said Clinton's visit was aimed at cementing a partnership with the new government and helping it steer toward democracy. Clinton would encourage the National Transitional Council to fulfill pledges to move swiftly toward elections.
"The important thing is to be able to show the Libyan people that there is momentum," a senior administration official traveling with Clinton said.
"We're pushing the (NTC) to be able to show the Libyan people that they're serious in their commitments to transition, that they're serious in their commitments to rule of law, that they're serious about getting to those elections."
U.S. officials said the fresh aid Clinton is bringing totals about $11 million and will boost Washington's contribution to Libya since the uprising against Gadhafi began in February to roughly $135 million.
The new aid package includes medical aid for wounded fighters and additional assistance to secure weaponry that many fear could fall into the hands of terrorists. Aides said the money is meant partly as a pledge to ongoing U.S. support during what will be a difficult passage to free elections and a new government after four decades of dictatorship.
The United States took part in the NATO bombing campaign that helped the NTC take power, although its aircraft largely played a secondary role to those of Britain and France.
Nearly two months since capturing Tripoli, the NTC has failed to defeat remaining Gadhafi loyalists, raising questions about its ability to exert its authority over the entire country and postponing the launch of its promised democracy program.
Clinton arrived as the interim government was facing a military setback in Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean coast where a few days ago it was poised to declare victory over pro-Gadhafi forces.
Sirte is now the last major Libyan town where pro-Gadhafi forces are holding out, after the other bastion of resistance, Bani Walid, fell to the country's new rulers on Monday.
Gadhafi loyalists who had been cornered in a an area of Sirte of about a square mile appeared to have broken out of their encirclement, Reuters reporters in the city said. A group of NTC fighters was forced to pull back about 1.2 miles after they came under heavy fire.
The force was trying to regroup near the Ouagadougou conference center — the complex where Gadhafi used to host foreign heads of state — but was pinned down.
A volley of 22 mm rounds from Gadhafi loyalists thudded into the group, hitting four vehicles and seriously wounding one NTC fighter. He was loaded into an ambulance and driven away.
On the southern outskirts of the city, in an area that in previous days had been safe from gunfire, mortars were landing and air-burst rounds were exploding overhead.
On the edge of the "Seven hundred" district in central Sirte, the front line had not moved but the mood of optimism among NTC fighters had been replaced by despair at the mounting casualties.
A Reuters reporter saw one man hit by bullets from pro-Gadhafi forces.
People around him tried to resuscitate the fighter but they stopped after five minutes when it became clear he was dead. Afterwards, they threw down sand to mop up the pool of blood from his body.
The scene was in marked contrast to events earlier this week, when Gadhafi loyalists offered little resistance as NTC forces pummeled them with tank fire and mortars.
Libya's new rulers were so confident of their imminent victory in the town that NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil visited Sirte last week and was greeted by fighters firing triumphantly into the air.
NTC troops say loyalists use the cover of darkness to sneak out of their encirclement and then open fire and the NTC effort — by mostly amateur fighters in a hodgepodge of volunteer units — has been hampered by a lack of coordination.
Units from Benghazi in eastern Libya and Misrata to the west have lost men in "friendly fire" incidents, when they have fired at each other by mistake instead of at the Gadhafi loyalists.
Mohammed Ismail, a field commander with the anti-Gadhafi Shohada al-Thaqil brigade, said his men decided to stop bombarding loyalists with artillery and were now using infantry.
"There was so much artillery firing in a small space that there was friendly fire," he said.
Libya's new authorities took power nearly two months ago when an armed rebellion, with support from NATO missiles and warplanes, broke Gadhafi's grip on the capital, Tripoli, and ended his autocratic rule.
Gadhafi is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of ordering the killing of civilians. He is in hiding, possibly deep in Libya's Sahara desert.
The capture of Sirte is vital to the NTC, because it will mark the establishment of at least nominal control over all Libya's territory. The NTC has also said the fall of Sirte will be the signal for the process to begin of creating a fully-fledged government and building democratic institutions.
That process though is fraught with risks for Libya because it will involve finding a way to divide up power between rival groups, many of them armed, who are impatient for a stake in the new Libya.