Is Libya's leader "finished"?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 16 2004 11:46 AM

Meeting Muammar

Is Libya's leader "finished"?

(Continued from Page 1)

A few days after Berlusconi's day trip to Libya, the government press officer called, saying I should come to the office at 9 that night. The small group of journalists who gathered was whisked to the airport to see Gerhard Schröder arrive—the first German chancellor to visit Libya in decades. The press bus then joined the convoy and tore across Tripoli, pulling up at the gates of Qaddafi's old compound shortly before midnight. Having wound up at the tail end of the huge motorcade, the small press pack was late and ran, panting, across the big lawn toward a tent. Inside, Qaddafi lounged on a divan, inviting Schröder to make himself at home. Schröder grinned and seemed charmed. When the journalists were evicted from the tent, it became clear why Qaddafi had chosen to entertain at that spot. Near the gates of the compound was its real attraction: the ravaged hulk of Qaddafi's two-story family home, against which President Reagan ordered a bomb strike in 1986. The strike killed Qaddafi's 4-year-old daughter, and the house has remained a shrine for him since. Outside the door, there's a gold-painted statue of a clenched fist raised in the air, closed around a crumpled F-16 bomber, on which is written, "USA."

Later, Schröder's aides said that the leader had spent much of the meeting idly flipping through satellite TV channels. But as with Berlusconi's visit, the leader had some history to attend to. He had finally summoned an aide to show Schröder a videotape of victims of landmines that had been laid by Nazi soldiers in Libya's vast desert during World War II.

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The next day, Schröder returned to the compound. This time, Qaddafi stepped out of his tent into the blazing sun and hugged the chancellor as an old friend. The leader was in the mood to talk to reporters, and I seized the moment. So, I asked, would he continue fighting America's foreign policy while rebuilding his ties with the Bush administration? "To criticize their international policies is normal, because their international policies are not up to the standards of today," he answered. The answer sounded so bland that I wondered—again—whether the leader had finally become just another leader. The Western consultant I'd spoken to told me that the obligatory portraits of Qaddafi in Tripoli's shops and revolutionary slogans displayed around the city were now simply window dressing. "It's embarrassing," he said, "I try to tell them it makes them look like a banana republic."

Back home in Paris, I tried to call some Tripoli contacts, but I couldn't get through. Each time I tried, the line went dead. Finally, a recording from the Libyan telephone company clicked on, explaining the problem in Arabic and English. It was a national holiday marking Italy's long colonial rule over Libya. "Due to the selfish acts against the Libyan people by the Italians, there will be no international telephone communication today," said the recording.

Perhaps Leader is not finished after all.

Vivienne Walt lives in Paris and writes for Time magazine.

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