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Kadafi's Mea Culpa

August 22, 2003

In a region rife with despots, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi has always set himself apart with his crazed ruthlessness. He has a taste for flashy clothes and gun-toting female bodyguards and has repeatedly backed terrorism against America and its allies.

Now, though, Kadafi faces his own internal Islamic extremist threat, and in the 9/11 aftermath he has been trying to reinvent himself, as, of all things, a foe of international terrorism. His most surprising move has been to accept responsibility for an atrocity that has dominated U.S.-Libyan relations: the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

In a deal with the United States and Britain, Libya has agreed to pay families of the victims up to $10 million each in compensation. In return, the United Nations Security Council is expected to formally lift sanctions against Libya next week, if France doesn't exercise a veto because French victims of another Libyan-sponsored plane explosion got much less compensation. The sanctions against Libya mainly involve restrictions on sales of certain kinds of oil equipment and arms.

Last year, Libya signed international conventions to suppress the financing of terrorism and ensure that plastic explosives were detectable by security devices. The State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism reports that "Libya appears to have curtailed its support for international terrorism," though it may maintain "residual contacts" with former clients.

On Sept. 1, 2002, Kadafi himself denounced Al Qaeda and fundamentalist "heretics" in Libya seeking their own brand of regime change. He has reportedly dodged several assassination attempts.

So, has the jackal really changed, and should the U.S. suspend its own more restrictive sanctions against Libya -- total bans on commercial contracts and direct import and export trade, especially Libyan oil sales? Not yet. Big business might like to deal with Libya, and its struggling economy could use any boost. But Kadafi continues to meddle in conflicts in Sierra Leone, Chad and Liberia. And the U.S. believes he has programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Kadafi is clearly seeking to change his country's pariah status, however, and the U.N. sanctions have lost their punch. Kadafi also seems less a menace than before, simply because the world is threatened by even more heinous, murderous terrorists.

No matter how long Kadafi clings to power, Lockerbie and his other acts of terrorism will not be forgotten -- or forgiven. But it's in U.S. interests to keep prodding him to renounce terror and make amends for his despicable past actions, allowing his long-suffering people to rejoin the civilized world.

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