By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 6, 2008
TRIPOLI, Libya, Sept. 5 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Friday night with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, whom former President Reagan once labeled "this mad dog of the Middle East," signaling a new chapter in U.S.-Libyan relations.
Making the first visit by the top U.S. diplomat in more than half a century to the onetime pariah state, Rice was greeted by Gaddafi at his heavily guarded residential compound that U.S. jets bombed 22 years ago at the height of tensions between the two countries. The two discussed how the longtime foes could work together on counterterrorism, the Darfur conflict and other issues.
Rice and Gaddafi did not shake hands; the strongman, who has ruled Libya since a coup in 1969, simply placed his right hand over his chest, a traditional welcome, and ushered her to the side as he prepared to shake the hands of her male aides. When the two sat down to chat, he inquired through an interpreter about the hurricanes threatening the eastern United States.
Rice is the most senior U.S. official ever to meet with Gaddafi, and her trip here demonstrates that decades of hostility between the two countries has ended. The two countries were working on agreements Friday on cultural and educational exchanges and on trade and investment.
The turnabout began in 2003, when Gaddafi announced he would give up his nascent programs to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and renounced support of international terrorism. Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and U.S. officials say it has become helpful in thwarting the flow of foreign fighters from North Africa into Iraq.
"Quite frankly, I'd never thought I would be visiting Libya. It's quite something," Rice told reporters traveling with her as her plane flew from Portugal to Libya for the visit.
"This demonstrates that the United States does not have permanent enemies," Rice added. "It demonstrates that if countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction, the United States is prepared to respond. It's a beginning, it's an opening. It's not, I think, the end of the story."
Rice is the first secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953. Officials in both countries have eagerly anticipated her meeting with Gaddafi -- the Bush administration wants to showcase a rare foreign policy success and Libya seems to believe that Rice's visit will finally put its notorious past behind it.
Before stepping into the hot desert sun, Rice told reporters with a grin, "I look forward to listening to the leader's world view." Gaddafi in recent years has depicted himself as an African, not an Arab. He has produced a treatise for his own solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict -- a single state known as "Isratine." Rice said she expected him to bring up his proposal in their talks.
Gaddafi, referring to Rice as "Leezza," paid Rice a back-handed compliment last year in an interview with al-Jazeera television, claiming he did not go to Arab summits because, behind the scenes, Rice is in control of the Arab world.
"I support my darling black African woman. I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders," he said in the March 27, 2007, interview. "She beckons to the Arab foreign ministers, and they come to her, either in groups or individually. . . . Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. . . . I love her very much. I admire her, and I'm proud of her, because she's a black woman of African origin."
When Gaddafi met Rice, he wore a simple Libyan white cotton robe and a black Libyan fez, accented by a malachite broach in the shape of Africa, a colorful sash with shapes of Africa, and highly polished black shoes. The formal meeting took place in a wood-paneled room filled with incense. Later, Rice and Gaddafi ate a late-night iftar dinner, which breaks the Ramadan fast, in the small kitchen of his private quarters.
"We have made progress in concrete ways. . . . We're off to a good start," Rice told reporters after her approximately two hours with the Libyan leader.
Though diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 2006, true rapprochement was slowed by litigation stemming from Libya's past involvement in terrorism. Last month, the last remaining hurdle preventing Rice's visit was cleared when the United States and Libya agreed to settle all outstanding terrorism-related litigation, including claims resulting from the 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco frequented by U.S. military personnel in Berlin. The deal also settled Libyan claims for 40 deaths -- including an adopted child of Gaddafi's -- caused by a U.S. bombing raid over Tripoli in retaliation for the disco deaths.
Some of the families of Flight 103 victims criticize the warming of ties with Libya. Rice said the State Department had been in "constant contact" with victims' families. "We very much think we have tried to take into consideration, as we moved this relationship forward, the concerns of these victims," she said. "I understand that no amount of money can bring people back, but compensation seems to be an important element."
Gaddafi's shift has suddenly opened up Libya for business, after years of isolation under international sanctions. Libya has more than 3 percent of the world's oil reserves.
European leaders have flocked to Libya in recent months seeking to drum up business. Italy, for instance, agreed last week to pay $5 billion in compensation for its colonial rule of Libya -- and walked away with a collection of promised business deals. Libya, which earned more than $40 billion from the energy exports in 2007, is seeking to nearly double oil production capacity to 3 million barrels per day by 2012.
Libya is seeking to invest in the United States, via a $50 billion sovereign wealth fund.
Though Gaddafi has opened up to the West, he has retained a tight grip on power. His portrait adorns many buildings in Tripoli, and posters declaring "39" -- the number of years since the coup -- line the streets.
Prior to the visit, human rights groups urged Rice not to sidestep questions about democracy and freedom of speech, and called on her to directly raise the case of Libya's leading dissident, Fathi al-Jahmi. Jahmi, 67, has been jailed or held in a hospital since 2002 -- except for a brief interlude in 2004 engineered by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), now the Democratic vice presidential candidate -- for advocating freedom of speech and democracy and for meeting with U.S. diplomats. Jahmi, according to his brother Mohamed, is being held in the Tripoli Medical Center in a solitary room monitored by video and audio devices and infested with cockroaches.
Rice told reporters Friday night that she had raised Jahmi and other human rights cases in a "respectful manner." Appearing with Rice, Libyan Foreign Minister Libyan Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam dismissed the idea that Libya had anything to learn from anyone about human rights.
At least 11 Libyans have been held at U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The government here has condemned the detention; U.S. officials have expressed concern about the treatment of prisoners who have been returned to Libya.