Wednesday, November 28, 2001

TRIPOLI, Libya In the heart of Tripoli, off a boulevard lined with buildings from Libya’s colonial past, is the building that until recently sheltered an organization led by one of the world’s most notorious terrorists Abu Nidal.

Today, the green-shuttered building houses the Arabic Language Institute, one of Libya’s most respected research academies.

This change of occupancy, from internationally wanted terrorists to academics discussing the intricacies of Arabic prose, falls in with the benign image that Moammar Gadhafi, once the “enfant terrible” of the Arab world, is trying to project.

In a process he began four years ago and seems to be accelerating, Col. Gadhafi is trying to present Libya more as America’s friend than as the enemy still listed on the U.S. State Department roster of terrorism-sponsoring states.

He condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as “horrifying and destructive” and said U.S. retaliation would be an act of self-defense. He urged Libyans to donate blood and denounced the use of anthrax as “demonic.”

It’s sometimes hard to imagine that this is the same North African strongman whose terrorist connections provoked President Reagan to order Libya bombed in 1986.

“I do think the climate’s improving,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Just two weeks ago, a Berlin court convicted four persons of the 1986 disco bombing that killed two American soldiers and a Turkish woman, but the judge said Washington’s claim that Libya’s Col. Gadhafi was responsible was not proven because U.S. and German authorities refused to provide enough evidence.

Judge Peter Marhofer said the bombing was planned by members of the Libyan secret service and workers at the Libyan Embassy in what was then East Berlin. The court said four defendants plotted the attack, but found only Verena Chanaa, a 42-year-old German, guilty of murder. She was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

Yassir Chraidi, 42, a Palestinian accused of being the organizer, was also sentenced to 14 years, and the two others convicted got 12 years each. Prosecutors had sought life sentences for all four and are appealing.

The April 5, 1986, explosion at the La Belle disco killed Sgt. Kenneth T. Ford, 21, and Nermin Hannay, 29, immediately. Sgt. James E. Goins, 25 among 230 persons wounded died later of his injuries. Mr. Reagan blamed Libya and ordered retaliatory air strikes on two of its cities.

In 1997, in one of his first moves to shake off his country’s classification as a pariah state, Col. Gadhafi expelled Abu Nidal and his group. They had sheltered in Libya for more than a decade.

Since then, Col. Gadhafi has donned many hats to prove that the former revolutionary has mellowed.

He has tried to paint himself as Africa’s senior statesman and conscience, and meddles less in his neighbors’ affairs. He spends money on schools and hospitals instead of financing rebel movements.

In 1999, after a protracted diplomatic battle, he handed over for trial two Libyan suspects in the December 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. A Scottish court sitting in the Netherlands acquitted one a Libyan Arab Airlines official while the second an intelligence agent is appealing his life sentence. Libya’s government has always denied involvement in the bombing.

Last year, in a spectacular saga of diplomacy and rhetoric, Col. Gadhafi brokered the release of 10 Western and South African hostages in the Philippines held by rebels over whom Libya has influence. Libya denies reports that it paid a ransom of $10 million, saying it only offered funding for development projects in the impoverished, largely Muslim southern Philippines.

Col. Gadhafi has crushed his country’s Muslim militants, including those who fought in Afghanistan alongside suspected terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden, and has banned clergymen from expressing political opinions in their Friday sermons. Ironically, one of the organizations now defined by the U.S. government as “terrorist” is the little-known Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant outfit that claims responsibility for a 1996 assassination attempt against Col. Gadhafi.

When he overthrew Libya’s king in 1969, he was a handsome 27-year-old colonel determined to run the former Italian colony on revolutionary lines. He renamed the country the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and produced his own political philosophy a “Third International Theory” between capitalism and socialism, summed up in Mao Tse-tung-style little “Green Books” of his sayings.

And beneath his country, 90 percent of it desert, lay plenty of oil to finance his ambitions.

Among his grandiose projects is a man-made river begun in 1984 to pump drinking water from desert aquifers to the coast. It is still under construction.

Now, nearing 60, Col. Gadhafi is one of the longest-ruling Middle Eastern leaders, a flamboyant dresser who favors designer robes in striking blues, mauves and greens; a rambling speaker whose provocative sarcasm appeals to his audiences.

Some may find him sinister, others comical. But at home he has plenty of admirers.

“He brought us victory, light and education,” said Mustafa Zintani, a hotel manager. “And I tell the skeptical West: Yes, he brought us freedom, but unlike you, we don’t drink alcohol or walk half-naked in the street to prove that we are free.”

There’s still plenty of the old, eccentric Col. Gadhafi. Take “Libya’s Rocket,” for instance. Two years ago, Libyan officials announced that Col. Gadhafi had invented the world’s safest car, with air bags that deploy all around. A factory was supposed to turn out 50,000 cars a year. Nothing more has been heard it.

He tells his people to live more frugally by buying smaller drinking glasses, and talks about abolishing universities and allowing students to begin their majors in high school.

Then there’s the matter of what year this is.

Most of the Muslim world follows a lunar calendar that begins the count from the prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina to found the faith 1,422 years ago. But Libya follows a solar calendar designed by Col. Gadhafi, which he keeps changing. For instance, this year began as 1431, counting from Muhammad’s birth. But in early January, Col. Gadhafi changed the year to 1369, starting from the prophet’s death.

There are none of the usual national institutions no parliament, no unions, no parties, no independent news organizations. Col. Gadhafi has used his powers to keep the country in permanent flux in the belief that a society can only be free if it’s in constant revolution.

But globalization is creeping up on Libya’s 5 million people.

Western music, once frowned upon, blares from speeding cars . Fast food is slowly encroaching on staples like couscous. Internet cafes have opened up new worlds. Cable television has introduced Libyans to “Seinfeld” and “Ally McBeal.”

Libya used to have only one decent hotel the Beach Hotel, which reportedly accommodated Abu Nidal and the Venezuela-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as “Carlos the Jackal.” Abu Nidal has disappeared since his expulsion, and there have been reports he was in Iraq. Carlos is serving a life sentence in France. The Beach Hotel has been turned into a shopping center.

Oil has underwritten Col. Gadhafi’s autocracy for 32 years, but the per-capita income hovers around $5,000 a year well behind the oil-rich Persian Gulf states and the wealth is not evenly distributed since much of it is funneled to Col. Gadhafi’s inner circle.

Libyan officials say that their country has done enough to prove it has turned over a new leaf, and that Washington is being unfair in refusing to lift its unilateral sanctions. The United Nations suspended its sanctions in 1999, and Europeans have reopened embassies and air links. They sponsor trade fairs and encourage businesses to visit.

The Clinton administration softened its stance on Libya, perceiving it to have become more moderate. Last year, Ronald E. Neumann, a State Department official, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Libya no longer poses the threat it once did.”

But the United States insists that before there can be any policy change, Libya must fully comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on it to accept responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, compensate the families of those killed, and renounce terrorism.

Western diplomats in Libya say they can’t be certain that Col. Gadhafi has cut all ties to terror groups, but they express doubt he would jeopardize his effort to rebuild his image by sponsoring violence.

Even though Col. Gadhafi still occasionally rails against the United States, his foreign minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, said in September that Libya was keen to thaw relations with Washington.

Libyan officials point out that although American companies abandoned their oil fields after U.S. sanctions were imposed in 1986, the government has not sold their rights to European firms.

Indeed, American oil executives are still in touch with their Libyan counterparts and have visited the country several times, sometimes secretly, and were treated as honored guests.

Meanwhile, hundreds of students are signing up for English classes, once banned as the language of imperialists.

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