WASHINGTON — Despite Libya's belated denial of responsibility for the Rome and Vienna airport killings, U.S. officials said Saturday there is no doubt that Col. Moammar Kadafi's regime played an indispensable supporting role in the attack by a violent Palestinian splinter group.
"There is no change in our position," one official said after Libya's senior foreign policy spokesman suddenly reversed his government's weeklong praise of the terrorist attacks and insisted that his country had nothing to do with them.
From the Reagan Administration's viewpoint, the airport attacks that killed 15 travelers, including five Americans, are just the latest element of the indictment against Kadafi and his government.
Washington has been trying since 1981 to isolate Tripoli economically and diplomatically in response to a series of murders of Libyan dissidents in the United States and Europe, apparently carried out by Libyan hit squads, and to Kadafi's unwavering support of the most radical Palestinian elements.
Even before 1981, the U.S. government considered Kadafi a dangerous madman. But there were few overt actions against him before the Reagan Administration.
"Almost any world trouble spot you go to, Kadafi has had his hand in, mostly through money," Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former State Department official, said Saturday. "He has been on the short list (of international troublemakers) of every Administration since (former President Gerald R.) Ford.
'Wouldn't Do That Now'
"There was a time in the (former President Richard M.) Nixon Administration when we thought we could work with him, and we may even have helped to thwart a coup attempt," he said. "We wouldn't do that now."
The United States cited the Dec. 27 airport attacks when it renewed its effort to persuade its Western European allies to join in sanctions against Libya. But while European governments, like the United States, generally blamed the Libyan-backed Abu Nidal organization for the killings, no government has so far offered direct support for Washington's sanctions against Libya.
The White House and State Department have also hinted that the United States might take military action against Libya.
The aircraft carrier Coral Sea steamed Friday from Naples, Italy, for the eastern Mediterranean waters near Libya. But U.S. officials said that no immediate military response is planned. The Navy usually keeps a carrier task force in the eastern Mediterranean, so the Coral Sea's redeployment marked a return to the normal situation rather than a crisis-driven buildup of force.
"The military element is just a small part of the problem with Kadafi," one Administration official said. "Nothing seems to work with him. He's just crazy. It is not like you are dealing with a rational actor."
Washington holds Libya primarily responsible for the Rome and Vienna attacks and other activities of the Abu Nidal group because that organization is headquartered in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and it presumably could not function as it does without Libyan support. The group also has offices in Damascus and previously was supported by Iraq, but the United States has not made a similar effort to blame Syria or Iraq for the attacks.
Turnaround by Libyans
At first, Kadafi and his government hailed the Dec. 27 killings as just vengeance for Israel's bombing of the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia. But on Saturday, Ali Tureiki, Libya's foreign secretary, said, "We condemn any action against individuals, including that one in Rome and Vienna."
Richard Straus of the Middle East Policy Survey said Tureiki's statement may be an indication that U.S. diplomacy is having some effect.
"Kadafi can't be comfortable being singled out; he does want a certain amount of international respectability," Straus said. "But this has a very limited effect."
Richard C. Shadyac, a Washington lawyer who for years has handled Libya's legal business in the United States, accused the Administration of conducting a " 'Rambo' foreign policy."
"Our President likes to pick on countries he can beat," Shadyac said of President Reagan.
An Obstacle to Peace
"There is no question that Moammar Kadafi is a hard-line revolutionary, and there is no question that he backs hard-line Palestinians. He is an obstacle to the Middle East peace settlement that would give Israel what it wants," Shadyac said. "What we ought to do is send a diplomatic team to Libya and sit and discuss the issues with Kadafi. If we can sit down with the madmen of Russia that are raping Afghanistan, why can't we do the same thing with this small country?"