TRIPOLI, Libya — Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the influential second son of Moammar Gaddafi who was once seen as the great hope for reform in Libya, is clear on two points: He and his government have done nothing wrong, and they are not going to back down.
In an interview that reflected the defiance of the Gaddafi family more than two months into its efforts to put down a rebellion supported by the United States and its allies, the 38-year-old said the world had gone to war with Libya based on nothing more than rumor and propaganda.
In Saif Gaddafi’s telling, he has been betrayed by his “best friend,” who defected to join the rebels. His father’s government is besieged by al-Qaeda. And President Obama has proved no different from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The comments underscore the uncompromising stance of the Libyan government at a time when the fighting has stalemated and NATO faces internal squabbling. Although there had been indications this month that Saif Gaddafi was interested in a diplomatic solution to the crisis that has divided his nation, his tone during an hour-long interview suggested that the core decision-makers in Tripoli are in no hurry to find a political way out.
As if to bolster that point, forces loyal to the Gaddafi regime on Sunday heavily shelled the besieged city of Misurata, the only rebel outpost in western Libya. A city council spokesman said 17 people were killed and more than 100 were injured. Government troops also attacked rebel positions in the strategically critical eastern city of Ajdabiya, sending some opposition fighters fleeing back to their de facto capital, Benghazi.
One month after the uprising, the United Nations authorized a no-fly zone over Libya in March to counter the government’s attacks on civilians. Obama has said that international military action saved countless Libyan lives, by preventing Moammar Gaddafi’s men from carrying out a massacre in Benghazi.
But in Saif Gaddafi’s view, Obama has it all wrong.
“We want the Americans tomorrow to send a fact-finding mission to find out what happened in Libya. We want Human Rights Watch to come here and to find out exactly what happened,” he said. “We are not afraid of the International Criminal Court. We are confident and sure that we didn’t commit any crime against our people.”
Relaxing on a lounge chair in a turtleneck sweater this weekend, Saif Gaddafi spoke confidently in fluent English without any advisers present. Every word was uttered with the passion of absolute conviction, every question parried with a version of events that contradicts conclusions reached by observers.
He says his father’s opponents are brutal terrorists and gangsters, led by al-Qaeda, who will soon collapse under their internal divisions. He deems evidence that his forces fired on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators and killed hundreds of them as categorically false.
The younger Gaddafi drew a comparison to the reports of weapons of mass destruction that Bush cited in the run-up to the war in Iraq. “It’s exactly like the WMD,” Saif Gaddafi said. “WMD, WMD, WMD, go and attack Iraq. Civilians, civilians, civilians, go and attack Libya. It’s the same thing.”
Libya, once a pariah state, had worked hard to repair its international image in the past decade. Saif Gaddafi, who at one time had called for democracy for his country, expressed surprise at Libya’s swift fall from grace.
“Nobody in the Middle East, and especially in Libya, thought that one day President Obama will attack Libya or an Arabic country,” he said. “It was a big shock, a big shock for everybody, even for my father.”
Saif Gaddafi’s international image has collapsed just as quickly. The Gaddafi scion, who was awarded a doctorate in governance and international relations at the London School of Economics in 2008, had many friends in the West before the crisis erupted in February. But then he delivered an extraordinary televised address vowing to fight until “the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”
The speech destroyed any lingering hope in the West that the son would break with his father’s government, and he voices no regrets about it today.
“I told them, ‘You listen, Libyans. There is a big conspiracy against Libya. You will have a civil war, you will destroy your country, you will destroy the oil, and you will have a foreign intervention.’ And those four points happened,” he said.
Ironically, he had brought many reformers into the government in the past decade, while promising that Libya would move toward democracy and freedom of expression under a new constitution.
Several of those men have since defected and play leading roles in the rebel Transitional National Council, a fact that could help explain the younger Gaddafi’s keenness to emphasize his nationalist credentials.
“They were my friends — we drink together, we eat together, we sit together, we travel together. They were my own people,” he said. “Now this is my biggest problem in Libya. I get messages from volunteers on the front. They told me: ‘After the victory, you, Saif, have no place here in Libya. Everything is because of you. Because those criminals, these traitors were your friends, and you brought them here.’ ”
Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated professor brought back to Libya by Saif Gaddafi to help run the nation’s economic policy, is the rebels’ foreign affairs representative. “He was my best friend. He changed completely. I don’t know why,” Saif Gaddafi said, his voice lowering with a tinge of hurt. “Now he is sitting with Hillary Clinton, with [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague, and with [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy in the Elysee. Excuse me, he said, ‘Saif, you are too small for me now.’ ”
Jibril and other top defectors have said that they could no longer support a government that uses such extreme violence against its citizens.
The Gaddafi government has been accused by the United Nations, human rights groups, doctors and foreign journalists of raining down mortar shells, rockets and sniper fire on civilians in Misurata, killing more than 280 people.
But in Saif Gaddafi’s version of events, the army is merely rooting out terrorists hiding in the city, just as the Russian army did in the Chechen capital, Grozny, just as Americans did in Fallujah in Iraq.
“It’s exactly the same thing,” he said. “I am not going to accept it, that the Libyan army killed civilians. This didn’t happen. It will never happen.”
Instead of attacking Libya, he said, the United States should be helping it fight al-Qaeda. Then, once the “terrorists” are removed from Misurata and Benghazi, he said, it will be time to talk of national reconciliation and democracy, under a new constitution that would reduce Moammar Gaddafi’s role to a “symbolic” one.
“The biggest issue is the terrorists and the armed militia,” Saif Gaddafi said. “Once we get rid of them, everything will be solved.”