- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus

After 37 years at Libya’s helm marred by terrorist attacks, tension, foreign boycotts, reconciliation and theatrical outbursts, Moammar Gadhafi is promising — once again — to cooperate with the international community.

And this time, says the Libyan leader, it’s for good.

In statements aimed at the news media and potential economic partners, the man who calls himself “Brother Leader” admitted mistakes, insisted that “terrorism is out” and acknowledged that “Libya cannot row against the current.”

Immediate international reactions were marked by confusion and caution. Some commentators doubted whether “the leopard has changed his spots.” Others warned against too much enthusiasm for the promised changes.

“Don’t take Libya off the hook,” insisted one Western think tank, and a Libyan exile in Paris said the West “sees what it wants to see” in Col. Gadhafi and Libya — where there is no indication the regime is relaxing its iron grip on the population of 5 million.

Weighing heavily on the hope for a “new Libya” is the death sentence by firing squad for five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, imprisoned in Libya since 1999 and accused of infecting 426 children with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

A retrial last December confirmed the sentence — after official statements hinting at the potential release of the six prisoners. The merciless cat-and-mouse game has caused an international outcry.

Col. Gadhafi, who once accused the medics of being agents of the Central Intelligence Agency, has made no comment on the latest verdict. Libya has accused the West of pressure to quash the verdict “handed down by a competent tribunal.”

Western experts insist there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the foreign personnel and blamed hospital conditions for the infections.

‘Era of hostility’ over?

Col. Gadhafi’s most outspoken statements took place this month during celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the Declaration of the People’s Authority, a charter for a new system of governance by participation in “citizens’ committees.”

There are at least 6,000 such committees, which have had little effect on Libya’s slide into penury, despite its oil wealth.

Describing his government’s rejection of weapons of mass destruction, Col. Gadhafi said: “Libya will never go back. The era of hostility and confrontation is behind us.”

Yet “confrontation and hostility” was a long-standing feature after Col. Gadhafi, then a 27-year-old army captain, seized power in September 1969 from ailing King Idriss al-Sanoussi, announced his “green revolution” and established the Libyan Arab Republic.

The Gadhafi regime intervened militarily in Chad, clashed with Egypt, tried to annex neighboring Tunisia, and has been blamed for a number of spectacular terrorist attacks, including the December 1988 explosion of a Pan American World Airways flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 persons.

In 1986, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Libya, froze Libyan assets and ordered all Americans in Libya to leave the country. Later that year, after an explosion in a Berlin discotheque frequented by American military personnel, Washington sent warplanes to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi, narrowly missing Col. Gadhafi himself.

The raids appeared to cool a number of ventures by the Libyan leader, described by President Reagan as “the mad dog of the Middle East” under whose rule Libya was turned into an isolated pariah.

Terrorist label gone

The United States listed Libya as a “rogue” state pursuing international terrorism, and the United Nations imposed its own sanctions on the North African country.

The terrorist label was removed from Libya last May when Washington re-established diplomatic relations with Tripoli and welcomed Col. Gadhafi into the international community.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the decision as a result of “tangible results that flow from the historic decisions taken by Libya’s leadership to renounce terrorism and to abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs.”

But Libya’s economy based almost entirely on oil remains a shambles, although a number of Western firms rushed to offer investments and expertise.

Nearly 90 percent of Libya’s territory of 678,000 square miles is desert. From the fertile coastal areas of Tripolitania in the northwest and Cyrenaica in the east, the ground rises to limestone rocks then slopes toward the sands of the Sahara, dotted with oases.

It is there — in that barren, desolate area — that Libya’s only wealth has been found: Its oil reserves are estimated at 30 billion barrels — compared to Saudi Arabia’s 260 billion — but nonetheless a major source of income for a small country.

Libya has some of the most spectacular Roman ruins in North Africa, and in recent years has been trying to entice tourists. Lack of adequate infrastructure and strict laws banning alcohol have not been helpful.

In Roman times, Libya also served as a transit route for slaves and wild beasts from the heart of Africa to Tripoli (“Bride of the Sea”), then on to Rome to keep the populace amused. Historians note that Caesar Augustus had 3,600 animals killed in 26 games, while Trajan had 2,246 slaughtered in a single day.

Politically, dependence on oil has committed Libya to the desert, something Col. Gadhafi, ever the actor, tried to project by wearing elaborate Bedouin garb and receiving foreign visitors in ornate tents.

Recently, however, he decided to portray himself as an African rather than Arab, claiming the Arabs were “unworthy” of his attention and that talk of Arab unity is “an illusion and mirage.”

“I want to create a new Africa,” he said. “My role is to become a soldier for Africa.”

The Libyan leader provided considerable entertainment at international conferences he attended with an escort of stunning young women carrying submachine guns. At the start of 2007, he was one of the most durable heads of state, with no significant opposition.

‘Good news’ on rights

Human Rights Watch in the United States, while severely criticizing Col. Gadhafi’s rule, recently discerned “good news from Libya on the human rights front.”

“The notorious People’s Courts, which dispatched perceived political opponents to prison or death, were abolished in January 2005,” the group noted. “A handful of political prisoners have been released, while others have been granted new trials. … Still, Libya remains a closed and tightly controlled society. … Libyans are not allowed to criticize the government, its political system or its leader.”

“Torture remains a serious problem, and the Libyan security apparatus is pervasive,” the assessment concluded.

Nonetheless, Col. Gadhafi persists in portraying his system as a new form of democracy in which all citizens participate. People should rule themselves, and not elect others to do it, he claims. He himself, Col. Gadhafi says, is a guide, who leads his people before they learn their responsibilities.

In such an atmosphere, foreign experts note a steady rise in the influence of Saif al-Islam, Col. Gadhafi’s son, who is described as being the only person capable of introducing desperately need economic reforms.

Western experts say Libya’s entire economic structure has to be reformed and a new managerial class created, as well as a private sector, which does not exist.

Despite their country’s oil wealth, most Libyans live in poverty and in a political straitjacket. In his latest appeals to Western political and economic circles, Col. Gadhafi has not signaled a significant change.

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