On the night of Nov. 23, Col. Khassan Ishqal was taken to Enas Hospital in the Libyan capital with six bullet wounds in his body, according to diplomats here citing hospital sources. He died shortly afterward.
Ishqal was "an extremely powerful man," as one European diplomat put it. He was part of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi's own Qaddafodam clan from Surt, where Ishqal served as military governor. He also played a major role in the country's oil industry and held senior intelligence posts, according to various diplomats.
"A lot of people hated him," said one source who looked closely into Ishqal's background. He reportedly had imprisoned some officials for corruption. His oil dealings brought him frequently into contact with westerners, and, as a result, he was considered to be pro-West. Ishqal was "one who dared to tell Qaddafi a lot of the truth -- about economic policy, for instance," said the diplomat.
Ishqal is believed to have quarreled frequently with Maj. Abdul Salaam Jalloud, Qaddafi's closest aide and now the head of the revolutionary committees, a confrontation of the sort that Qaddafi is widely believed to have nurtured as a way of keeping competing centers of power off balance.
Ishqal was believed by diplomats to represent those Army officers who favor improving economic conditions before pushing ahead with the revolution, while Jalloud prefers increasingly radical revolutionary measures.
In Qaddafi's dream of the world, there is no army, and Qaddafi is a man determined at whatever cost to make his dream a reality. He has used the rather loosely defined revolutionary committees as a way of controlling various elements of Libyan society, including the Army. He has used this network of ideologically indoctrinated groups to sustain intelligence inside the walls of the Army's compounds, organizing the committees or imposing them in virtually every barracks, according to diplomats and Libyan officials. They are a parallel and often hostile authority within the Army itself, these sources said.
Qaddafi "has tried to organize disorganization to keep himself alive, so nobody could oppose him," said one diplomat.
But in the process, the Libyan leader may have created more dangers for himself. Several European diplomats interviewed this week contend that Qaddafi has turned the institution that he used to gain power 16 years ago into the institution most able and likely to bring him down.
Even as he faced the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli air strike during the past three weeks, he continued to speak bluntly about wanting to abolish the traditional armed forces and officer corps.
"The masses must replace the Army," the Libyan leader told reporters on Friday. "The regular Army will disappear, and armed citizens will replace it."
Asked if this would create resentments and problems with the regular armed forces, Qaddafi said, "Obviously, because they would like to have power, and when we dismantle it and give the people power, they can no longer do so."
But Qaddafi said, "It would be difficult to have a coup because the authority is in the hands of the people, and they would refuse. No one will obey."
Since he has acquired billions of dollars' worth of sophisticated weapons systems from the Soviets and other countries, moreover, his undermining of the professional military establishment may have worsened problems of maintenance and training and made Qaddafi even more dependent on foreign advisers -- particularly the Soviets, Czechoslovaks and East Germans -- to keep his arsenal functioning.
"This is the limit of [Qaddafi's] system," said one diplomat. "It is fine to have people be self-sufficient and able to do everything, up to a point. But when you have things like tanks and planes, you cannot improvise."
U.S. presidential "findings" for covert action against Libya last fall suggested that Washington hopes in part to lure Qaddafi into a foreign adventure or terrorist exploit that would give what the Central Intelligence Agency considered a growing number of Qaddafi's opponents in the Libyan military a chance to seize power.
Three times since August, Qaddafi has faced military buildups on his borders that may have increased tension among the leaders of his armed forces.
In early September, after Qaddafi expelled thousands of Tunisian and Egyptian workers, Algeria took Tunisia's part and moved troops to the Libyan frontier.
After the Nov. 23 hijacking of an Egyptair flight ended in Malta with at least 60 persons killed, Egypt blamed Palestinian terrorists backed by Libya. No clear proof was presented to establish the charge, but for several days Egypt reinforced air bases near Libya's eastern border and maintained its troops on a high state of alert.
In the aftermath of the Dec. 27 Palestinian attacks on airports in Rome and Vienna that resulted in 19 deaths, the United States and Israel once again accused Qaddafi of backing the terrorists, and both countries hinted at reprisals.
In addition to these acute problems, diplomats cite several chronic sources of discontent in the armed forces.
"This is not an Army isolated from the people. It reflects all the problems in the general population," said one senior diplomat. "If there are tribal problems in the civilian population, there are tribal problems in the Army."
Economic cutbacks have caused perquisites for Army officers to be curtailed or eliminated and salaries are low.
Other diplomats cite Qaddafi's military adventures in Chad and in Uganda in 1979 as causes for irritation among the officers.
But Qaddafi is no stranger to plots, including attempts on his life, and he has proved a resilient survivor.
In March or early April 1985, according to reports based on U.S. intelligence sources, Army officers were involved in two attempts to eliminate Libya's leader. As many as 25 officers were believed to have been executed when their efforts failed.
Since then, the power of the revolutionary committees inside the barracks has increased further, and diplomats say they believe the committees control most or all of the available ammunition.
Some diplomats suggest that Qaddafi often seems to be playing the revolutionary committees and the Army against each another. In November, for instance, the military chief of staff appeared prominently and frequently in the press, and the Army found itself once again in a favorable public light. But at the end of the month, Ishqal's mysterious killing raised fresh questions about the loyalty even of the officers closest to Qaddafi.
Despite some dramatic published reports of Ishqal's death, however, including one where he allegedly tried to kill Qaddafi, and another in which Qaddafi was said to have shot him, most of the usually well-informed European diplomats here insist that they have no idea of the actual circumstances.
They point out that if Ishqal had been killed under what they call "the usual circumstances" for Qaddafi's opponents here, Ishqal never would have been taken to a hospital staffed by foreign personnel, who subsequently revealed his death and its cause.
The official version was first that Ishqal died in a car accident, but government spokesmen faced with reports of his bullet wounds now say that he committed suicide.
Whatever the true circumstances, Ishqal's death may have opened up still more problems for Qaddafi. In a country where information is tightly controlled and rumor quickly takes on the aspect of truth, "the suspicion is that Jalloud felt threatened by Ishqal and persuaded Qaddafi to kill him," said one European diplomat. "Not all the officers are happy with this solution. But the worst thing is that Khassan [Ishqal] came from Qaddafi's tribe."
"Of course, the vendetta principle is still alive in Libya at the tribal level," said one diplomat, so "now Qaddafi really has to watch out for his own tribe, which, before, he could blindly trust."