Wednesday, March 3, 2004

SIRTE, Libya — In a turnabout from 35 years of hostility to the West, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi told delegates at the opening of the Libyan People’s National Congress in this seaside resort town Tuesday that his government had renounced terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and declared that “a new era has started” of openness and cooperation with the United States.

In an address to the nation’s top elected leaders as well as seven members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Libyan leader gave the first detailed public account of the reasons behind his surprise announcement on Dec. 19 that Tripoli was prepared to abandon its hitherto secret nuclear-weapons program.

He also detailed Libya’s extensive support for insurgencies, including the Irish Republican Army, South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) and the African National Congress, while pledging an end to that era.

“We have guests from countries that have launched wars against us, and this pleases us,” said Col. Gadhafi, in a nod to the U.S. congressman who had addressed the gathering just minutes before the Libyan leader appeared. “We are grateful to them for coming, but now the Libyan people shall hear the meaning of this.”

Col. Gadhafi spent close to 90 minutes telling his story to the People’s Congress, many of whom later said they heard the details for the first time.

“There were stories in the press and rumors that Libya might have a secret nuclear program,” Prime Minister Shokri Ghanem told UPI after the speech, “but no one really knew for sure.”

And although “people knew officially that we supported liberation movements” in the past, no Libyan government official had come out with such a frank account as Col. Gadhafi had.

“No one separated Libya from the world community,” Col. Gadhafi insisted. “Libya voluntarily separated itself from others” by its actions.

“No one has imposed sanctions on us or punished us. We have punished ourselves.” The irony, Col. Gadhafi stated repeatedly, was “all these things were done for the sake of others.”

In a brutally self-critical account of Libya’s past support for radical movements worldwide, Col. Gadhafi concluded that the country had paid a high price for its adventures.

“Libya helped African nations” as they were breaking away from former colonial powers, “and we made other countries view Libya as an enemy.”

Libya helped the Palestinians, and now “the Palestinian president enters the White House. And we tell [Yasser] Arafat we oppose America because of you? How can [Arafat] enter the White House and we not improve our relations with the United States?”

Because of the changing circumstances in the world, where former enemies have become partners, if not friends, Col. Gadhafi said, “we decided to review our decisions, and concluded that we had isolated ourselves from the rest of the world.”

“If the Palestinians can recognize Israel, how can we not recognize that country?” he asked. “We cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves.” The liberation struggles that Libya had supported “are finished, the battle is finished … Now people are shaking hands. So should only we stay enemies?”

Turning to his previously secret nuclear-weapons program, he noted that Libya, like many developing nations, had sought to acquire nuclear weapons “without really thinking against whom we would use it.”

“But today … it becomes a problem to have a nuclear bomb.

“At the time, it was maybe the fashion to have a nuclear bomb. Today, you have no enemy. Who’s the enemy?” he asked.

“Yes, there was such a program,” Col. Gadhafi said of Libya’s nuclear-weapons effort. Libya chose to declare it to the United States and Britain and seek their help in dismantling it “because it’s in our own interest and security.”

When the American teams came secretly last year to Libya to begin verifying its declarations, they asked why Tripoli had not divulged the program before. “Because now there are new realities. We are adapting to the new realities,” he said.

At another point, Col. Gadhafi said, “We got rid of it. It was a waste of time; it cost too much money.” He called on all countries to “get rid of their [weapons of mass destruction],” naming the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan, but not Israel, which is not a declared nuclear-weapons state.

Turning to the United States, the Libyan leader said he was hoping for technology to help develop his country’s economy, as well as joint ventures with U.S. firms. “We can be friends because we are not enemies anymore,” he said.

“We were part of history tonight,” Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, who led the seven-member congressional delegation, told UPI. “Colonel Gadhafi’s statements were unequivocal. There were no ifs, ands or buts.”

Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, Texas Democrat, said Col. Gadhafi had shown political courage. “I have lots of respect and admiration for a man who publicly admits his mistakes. It takes a lot of guts to say what he said in front of all these people. But now, he must live up to it.”

In his colorful presentation, Col. Gadhafi frequently sounded the theme that nuclear weapons and terrorism were no longer a guarantor of security, but a security risk. Having publicly abandoned its weapons and opened its nuclear sites to international inspections, Libya had enhanced its security, not diminished it, he said.

“If there is any aggression against Libya now, the whole world will come to defend Libya,” he said. “Yesterday, that was not the case.”

The U.S. congressmen applauded Col. Gadhafi when he spoke of his desire to build a strong new relationship with the United States, and were upbeat about the prospects for bilateral cooperation.

“At first, I was just listening to the speech, but what he was saying was so amazing that I started writing it down so I could report to my constituents,” said Rep. Susan A. Davis, California Democrat. “I took 24 pages of notes.”

“I thought it was very sincere and well thought out and vigorously pleaded,” said Rep. Chris Chocola, Indiana Republican. The United States “should accept his posture, but trust and verify.”

The U.S. government has commended Libya for its cooperation in disclosing and dismantling its ballistic missiles and chemical and nuclear weapons. “The Libyans are now waiting to see if we are going to come through, or whether we just wanted to get the weapons out,” Mr. Weldon said.

In recounting his earlier relations with the United States, Col. Gadhafi pointed out that when he asked the United States to abandon its military bases in Libya, the army left “and we were still friends.”

“The incredible thing about being here is to hear a former antagonist of our country say, ‘What in the world was I thinking when I took on a superpower?’” said Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat. “I thought it was an incredible historic moment. This could potentially redefine our relations with Africa, and potentially with the most conflicted part of the world, which is the Middle East.”

“If I had not been here and had Chairman Weldon or Congressman Ortiz tell me about it, I would not have believed it,” he added.

Mr. Weldon had led the first bipartisan congressional delegation to Libya from Jan. 25 to 27 and had met with the Libyan leader for more than two hours. He told Mr. Ghanem, the prime minister, at the time that he intended to return in the near future.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been invited to address the People’s Congress with Mr. Weldon, but previously unscheduled floor votes kept him in Washington until late Tuesday evening.

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