Libya Officially Welcomed Back To the U.S. Fold

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

Abdel-Rahman Shalqam and his wife received a personal tour of the White House, an official escort on Capitol Hill and a luncheon with executives from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Occidental Petroleum and Raytheon, as well as the U.S. trade representative's office.

So began the official redemption of Libya yesterday, as the foreign minister of a country once equated with "barbarism" became that nation's highest ranking official to visit Washington in 35 years.

Shalqam continues meetings today with the secretaries of state, homeland security and energy, as well as the deputy secretary of defense, about ways to deepen ties between Washington and Tripoli, according to both U.S. and Libyan officials. At lunch yesterday, he virtually gushed about the importance of Libyan students getting an American education and U.S. companies doing business in Libya.

"Relations between the United States and Libya are very important to us. . . . We want a new friendship," he said, trying to reassure Americans that Tripoli does not back the Islamic militancy of other governments and groups now targeting U.S. interests in the Middle East. "Our interpretation of Islamic heritage is completely different from the others who don't accept the philosophy of coexistence."

The visit marks a dramatic reversal of decades of U.S. policy.

After the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya in response to Libya's attack on West Berlin's La Belle disco, President Ronald Reagan described leader Moammar Gaddafi as "an enemy of the United States," adding: "His record of subversion and aggression . . . is well documented and well known. He has ordered the murder of fellow Libyans in countless countries. He has sanctioned acts of terror in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as the Western Hemisphere." Reagan said he was sure most Libyans were "ashamed" of a man who "made their country a synonym for barbarism."

But yesterday, the White House praised the same regime led by the same man. "Libya made an historic decision to stop its weapons of mass destruction program, and we want to work on ways to improve our relations, although there is still more work to be done," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We have concerns about human rights and other issues. Visits with senior U.S. officials are designed to move relations in the right direction."

Not all the old issues have been resolved, however, which limited Shalqam's White House visit to a sightseeing tour -- without any meetings with White House or National Security Council staff members, U.S. officials said. The Libyan delegation was hoping for a meeting with Vice President Cheney.

Libya has yet to pay $2 million per victim for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, for which two of Libyan intelligence agents were convicted. Families have been paid $8 million per victim, but the final installment was contingent on Libya being removed by a certain date from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. When the date passed, Libya withdrew the money.

The families have been pressing the Bush administration to pressure Gaddafi's regime to pay up. "The State Department betrayed us by not protesting the Libyan withdrawal of money from escrow in February 2005," said Rosemary Wolfe, a spokeswoman for the victims' families. "Their feet should be held to the fire."

The families had planned to protest outside the State Department today but decided that their actions would be lost in the focus on the Iowa caucuses, said Wolfe, who charged that the visit was deliberately timed to coincide with another major news event.

"There's still a lot to be done with respect to instituting basic freedoms within Libya. There's still some outstanding issues with respect to claims by U.S. citizens. Those need to be resolved," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is unlikely to visit Tripoli until the compensation issue has been resolved, U.S. officials said, despite her public statement that she was looking forward to a trip to Libya this year.

Shalqam dismissed the subject. "All of you are aware of what happened in the past," he said.

A Human Rights Watch report yesterday charged Libya with serious human rights abuses, including disappearances of three political prisoners over the past 18 months. "We welcome improved relations between Libya and the U.S., but not at the expense of political prisoners, torture victims and other Libyans who suffer abuse," HRW Mideast director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement.

U.S.-Libyan trade has soared since Libya came off the U.S. terrorism list and the last economic sanctions were lifted in 2006. Trade totaled about $3 billion in 2006, mainly from about $2.5 billion in Libya petroleum exports to the United States, according to the Commerce Department. Libya also became the fastest-growing market for U.S. exports in the world, increasing 419 percent to $434 million, according to the Commerce Department. Most U.S. exports to Libya were machinery related to the petroleum industry, aircraft, automobiles and agriculture.

Shalqam told about 100 business executives yesterday that he looked forward to signing new investment agreements during his three-day visit. In another reflection of Libya's new place in the world, it holds the presidency of the U.N. Security Council this month and a good part of his talks at the State Department will be about the U.N. agenda.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company