- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

TRIPOLI, Libya — The sight of the white jet taxiing down the tarmac yesterday — the first U.S. military plane to touch down in Tripoli since 1969 — left no doubt that a pariah state was coming in from the cold after renouncing its nuclear-weapons program.

In a landmark visit, seven members of Congress emerged from the U.S. Navy jet and heaped praise on the recent reforms of President Moammar Gadhafi, whom former President Ronald Reagan once called a barbarian.

“We’re very excited about opening this new chapter in our relations,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, who stepped off the plane wearing a pin with the American and Libyan flags.

“I’d say the Libyan leader has taken the first step,” Mr. Weldon said, adding, “Once our governments have completed the process of formal relations, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together.”

Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, Texas Democrat, put it more simply: “We want to be friends.”

The U.S. military aircraft was the first to touch down in Tripoli since 1969, when Col. Gadhafi seized power.

In the interim, American warplanes have flown only overhead, notably in 1986 when they launched attacks that killed 37 persons, including Col. Gadhafi’s adopted daughter, in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco that killed a U.S. soldier and a Turkish woman. The United States imposed sanctions that year, accusing Libya of supporting terrorist groups.

“I don’t think we can change history, but we also understand we can move together toward a new beginning,” Mr. Weldon said.

Over the past year, Col. Gadhafi has made a startling turnaround. He admitted his country’s involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the victims’ families.

He also acknowledged he had tried to develop weapons of mass destruction — including a nuclear bomb — and invited American, British and U.N. teams to inspect his weapons programs and dismantle them.

“I think, clearly, that Gadhafi is for real in that he has made this switch,” Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, said. “He has been a person of abrupt changes throughout his career.”

The lawmakers indicated that barring any further changes of heart diplomatic ties soon could be restored.

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