WASHINGTON — As President Reagan denounced Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, calling him "the mad dog of the Middle East," the Defense Department on Wednesday ordered two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers to move into position for possible retaliation against the Tripoli regime.
At a nationally televised news conference, Reagan said Libya has singled out the United States for repeated terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, he stopped short of blaming Libya directly for the bombings of a Trans World Airlines jetliner and a West Berlin discotheque last week.
Earlier, however, he had told a group of newspaper executives that Kadafi was "definitely a suspect" in the two most recent attacks, which killed five Americans.
'Goal of Revolution'
At the news conference, the President said, "This mad dog of the Middle East has a goal of a world revolution, Muslim fundamentalist revolution, targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots."
Reagan mused that Kadafi's reasons for selecting the United States as an enemy were "a little like climbing Mt. Everest--because we are here. But there is no doubt he has singled us out more and more for attack."
At the end of a day in which reports circulated that the President already had decided on a plan of retaliation, Reagan declined to talk about his military options because, he said, that would be "like talking about battle plans."
But, he declared, "when we could specifically identify someone responsible for one of these (terrorist) acts, we would respond. This is what we're trying to do, to find out who's responsible, for a fine sergeant in our military dead, and 50 young Americans lying in a hospital wounded because of that dastardly attack in West Berlin."
Pentagon sources said the aircraft carriers Coral Sea and America were ordered to stand by where they could move quickly into waters off Libya. The two ships took part two weeks ago in operations that tested Kadafi's claims that the Gulf of Sidra is part of Libyan territorial waters.
The Pentagon said the Coral Sea, which had been due to end its six-month deployment and head home to Norfolk, Va., was ordered to remain indefinitely in the Mediterranean.
But Pentagon officials emphasized that no decision had been made on what steps to take, if any, in response to the attack last Saturday on a West Berlin nightclub popular with off-duty U.S. military personnel, in which an American soldier and a Turkish woman were killed, or for the TWA jetliner explosion over Greece that killed four Americans on April 2.
With Reagan Administration officials apparently convinced that Libyan links could be established, at least to the West Berlin explosion, military planners were focusing on potential avenues of retribution.
No Direct Accusation
Nevertheless, Reagan carefully avoided making direct accusations at his news conference.
"Right now . . . I can't answer you specifically on the subject," he said when asked if he had concrete evidence that Kadafi was responsible for the attacks. "We are continuing with our intelligence work and gathering evidence on these most recent attacks, and we're not ready yet to speak on that. Any action we might take would be dependent on what we learn, so I can't go further."
Asked about reports from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, that Kadafi said a U.S. attack would set off retaliation against American interests around the world and that plans for a military confrontation had been completed, Reagan replied:
"We're going to be on the alert and on guard for anything he might do. He has threatened repeatedly and recently that he would bring that kind of warfare to our shores, directly here."
Libyans Living in U.S.
He speculated that Kadafi might call on Libyans living in the United States to mount terrorist attacks against Americans.
"We know that there are a number of his countrymen in this country," the President said. "He has even suggested that he could call upon people to do that, and we certainly do not overlook that possibility."
Asked whether he was provoking Kadafi by authorizing the maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra region, Reagan said the Libyan leader "just had to invent that to get on the air."
He said the Administration has not recognized any Libyan declaration of war against the United States, "nor will we." But he emphasized, "We're going to defend ourselves, and we're certainly going to take action in the face of specific terrorist threats."
Carter's Term: 'Polecat'
To former President Jimmy Carter's description of Kadafi as a "polecat" who should not be "poked," Reagan responded: "If somebody does this and gets away with it and nothing happens to him, that encourages him to try harder and do more. And everyone's entitled to call him whatever animal they want, but I think he's more than a bad smell."