A month after the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens, Washington said Thursday it has brought a veteran diplomat out of retirement to head up its Libya team vowing to help build the new democracy.
Arabic speaker Laurence Pope, who left the Foreign Service in 2000, arrived Wednesday in Tripoli to join staff there still shocked by the loss of Stevens, who was killed in the September 11 militant attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Stevens, killed along with three other diplomatic staff when armed men invaded and torched the Benghazi building, was the first US diplomat to be killed on active duty since 1979.
Pope will have a tricky job, taking over at a time when staffing at the Tripoli embassy has been reduced for security reasons, and the US administration has yet to decide whether to reopen a consulate in Benghazi.
His every move is likely to face scrutiny at home too, with Republicans having seized on the attack to slam US President Barack Obama's administration, accusing it of huge security failures.
Two security officers told a heated House of Representatives hearing on Wednesday that the consulate was a sitting target with weak security as requests for extra staffing were denied despite a rising Al-Qaeda threat.
Less than four weeks from the November 6 presidential elections, Libya and the administration's response to the upheavals caused by the Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy movements have become fodder in the bitter White House race.
But despite last month's brutal attack, the United States has vowed to stay the course in Libya as it seeks to build a new government following the ousting of longtime autocratic leader Moamer Kadhafi last year.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked Pope to come out of retirement to take up the post as charge d'affaires in Libya pending a decision on who to nominate as the next ambassador, officials said.
"As you can imagine, we wanted to have somebody with significant experience in the region, a very seasoned diplomat, at this complex time and as we continue to work with the Libyans," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists.
She said Pope had been given a warm welcome by the Libyan government, which appreciated "his seniority and deep background" knowledge.
In an earlier statement, Nuland said the appointment "emphasizes the commitment of the United States to the relationship between our two countries and to the people of Libya as they move forward in their transition to a democratic government."
"We will continue to assist as Libya builds democratic institutions and broad respect for the rule of law -- the goals that ambassador Stevens worked hard to achieve," she added.
She said that it was up to the White House whether to nominate a new ambassador, but suggested that Pope's initial appointment could be for up to a year.
His role as the top American diplomat in Libya will be "conducting relations with the government of Libya, reaching out to civil society," as well as being "responsible for ensuring that our various programs with the government of Libya are operating," Nuland told reporters.
Pope retired from the Foreign Service in 2000 after 31 years, during which he notably served as ambassador to Chad from 1993-1996.
He was also director for Northern Gulf Affairs from 1987-1990, associate director for counterterrorism 1991-1993 and political adviser to the head of US Central Command from 1997 to 2000.
He was also nominated as ambassador to Kuwait by then president Bill Clinton in 2000, but his appointment was never confirmed by Congress, and he retired shortly afterward.
"Pope looks forward to working with the Libyan government and the Libyan people during this historic and challenging time, as we build strong economic, social, political and educational bridges between our two people," Nuland added in her statement.
Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy told reporters late Wednesday: "We're reassessing whether or not and when we could return to Benghazi. We still regard it as a very, very critical location in our overall engagement with the government of Libya."