Amid signs of confusion in his government, Libya's ruler, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, today failed to make a promised personal appearance to mark a national holiday here and appeared instead on national television. He renewed his verbal attacks on the United States and again expressed interest in an alliance with the Soviet Bloc to counter U.S. pressure.
In a rambling speech that marked the 16th anniversary of Libya's takeover of the U.S. Air Force's former Wheelus Base outside Tripoli, Gadhafi appeared dispirited, speaking of arming every Libyan village and fortifying every inch of its long Mediterranean coastline against a U.S. invasion in a war he said might last 10 years or more.
Speaking from a television studio in an undisclosed location, in a low, often muffled, voice and a Bedouin Arabic that at times left many native Arab speakers confused as to his meaning, Gadhafi renewed his threat to send "suicide squads" to the United States as a "deterrent" against U.S. aggression.
Libyan Information Ministry officials said they could not explain why Gadhafi failed to appear in person for the anniversary of the turnover of the Wheelus Air Base, as had been his habit since it happened in 1970.
It was clear from the invitation extended to foreign journalists in Europe and the Middle East to attend the anniversary that Gadhafi had intended to make a personal appearance -- his first before westerners since the U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi on April 15.
As late as last night, Information Ministry officials were telling recently arrived reporters that something "big" would happen and that they "would not be disappointed."
Today, however, Libyan radio and television suddenly began announcing that Gadhafi would deliver a message to the nation by television and radio at 6 p.m. There was no explanation of why he would not appear at the rally.
Western diplomats speculated that either Gadhafi had been restrained by fellow officers in the Revolutionary Council -- in which, according to rumors here, he has been forced to share some of his power since the U.S. raid -- or he was depressed, sick or afraid to appear in public.
"We don't have long-distance missiles, but we have other things," Gadhafi said during the nearly two-hour speech, received largely with indifference here in the Libyan capital, where a rally and parade to mark the occasion drew no more than 2,000 spectators.
"We have suicide squads so that there is a deterrent," he said. "We are capable of striking and exhausting America."
"We must be prepared to die," he said. "We are not afraid of the American terrorists. We are not afraid of nuclear bombs. We must fight and dance at the same time. We do not want to live under constant terror. We are ready to make an alliance with the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc. The nonaligned movement is not enough."
Ending his speech, he smiled briefly at the cameras and said, "We are waiting for the Americans -- and so are the fish."
Gadhafi touched on several topics, including Palestine, Israel, Nicaragua, the need for Arab unity, the state of the economy, and even Yugoslav development projects in Libya. But he singled out King Hussein of Jordan for special invective because of his meeting this week with President Reagan, whom Gadhafi called "Israel's mad dog."
Gadhafi urged Jordanians to stage a "very strong demonstration against King Hussein" to protest his meeting with the American president. He also asked other Arabs to organize "revolutionary Arab forces" to "make explosions" against reactionary Arab regimes, whom he did not name.
After his speech ended and the ragged parade of his supporters marched through Tripoli's Green Square tonight, two effigies of Hussein were paraded around on mock gallows, then beaten into oblivion.
Ever since the U.S. raid, Gadhafi has kept a very low profile. He has made several televised speeches and appearances on television with foreign delegations or local officials in recent months, but no personal appearances.
His whereabouts have been a state secret, and he is not believed to have been living in Tripoli, where U.S. bombs destroyed his barracks home. Diplomats here believe he moves frequently between the desert oasis of Sabah and his wife's home district near Beyda in eastern Libya.
There have been rumors that fellow officers have been pressuring him to stay out of the limelight and relinquish his overall leadership of the country in favor of a more collective rule. Whether this has happened remains unclear, but today's confusion added fuel to this speculation.