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THE WORLD

Kadafi Follows His People in Overture to West

Libyans watch U.S. TV, observe European politics, debate democracy and surf the Net. Their eccentric leader is just keeping up.

March 07, 2004|Niko Price | Associated Press Writer

TRIPOLI, Libya — For 34 years, his eccentricities have been law.

When he declared green the color of his revolution, a nation painted its doorways. When he proclaimed his Third Universal Theory, academics authored 1,000 studies of it. When he renamed the months of the year, Libyans celebrated Valentine's Day in "Bird."

But suddenly, Col. Moammar Kadafi finds himself scrambling to keep up with his people.

In the latest incarnation of Kadafi's Libya, the government is opening up to the Western world, making amends for its terrorist past, and vowing to give up renegade allies and weapons of mass destruction.

Kadafi had little choice. Libya's people have already moved beyond the isolating strictures he imposed.

They are learning English and using the Internet to chat with relatives in the United States. They watch "Big Brother" on satellite TV. They follow news of European elections, the war in Iraq, the bird flu virus. They debate democracy and explore international business deals.

Foreign companies are back, with multibillion-dollar contracts to overhaul Libya's outdated oil infrastructure now that U.N. sanctions have been lifted.

Libyan's 61-year-old leader, in power since he overthrew King Idris I in 1969, is anxious not to be left behind.

"It's not something where he had a choice in it," said Hafez Ali Khalifa, a neurosurgeon. "You go with the flow, and he's going with the flow."

During much of his rule over this Alaska-sized country of 5.5 million people, Kadafi has gone resolutely against the flow.

He succored such terrorist fanatics as Abu Nidal. He shipped weapons to the Irish Republican Army. He meddled in neighboring African countries with sometimes destructive results. It took him nearly 15 years to shoulder responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

The United States, whose warplanes dropped bombs on Libya in a 1986 retaliation for a terrorist attack in Germany, was the archenemy. In the government's propaganda, it still is.

In a stairwell of Tripoli's Advancement Primary School, there is a mural of an eagle, Libya's national bird, shredding a U.S. flag in its talons. Textbooks tell children that they have a duty to "protect and defend the nation and destroy its greedy and envious enemies."

But when the bell rings, the kids fan out to Internet cafes with fast connections and cheap hourly rates, open AOL Instant Messenger and chat about the latest installment of "Lord of the Rings."

They go home to watch "Frasier" via satellite TV dishes that sprout from even the humblest apartment blocks. They flip on stereos to listen to American pop singers.

It's not that everyone rejects the state-sponsored dogma, reinforced by Kadafi's image looking down from street corners, park lampposts and office walls; it's just less relevant to their lives.

A photograph of Kadafi stands above the counter of the new Afaaq Co. for advertising, publishing and printing. But in the office of general manager Radwan al-Qaeed, the only posters are of European landscapes.

Al-Qaeed, 30, scans the Internet day and night for potential advertising deals. He leafs through brochures from suppliers in Florida and New Hampshire. He has little time to mull over Kadafi's latest whims.

"Most people my age are in private business," he said. "Politics doesn't really interest us."

What does interest people is economics. And that too is changing.

Libya remains one of Africa's richest nations, but life has become increasingly tough as oil production has dropped from more than 3 million barrels a day to 1.4 million since Kadafi took power.

Libyans fervently believe that if U.S. sanctions are lifted, their oil industry will take off and they will again be wealthy.

Work has already begun. Bringing in European and Asian companies to provide technology and experience, the government is building a $5-billion pipeline to pump natural gas under the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

Libya is about to put out bids for a $2-billion upgrade of an oil refinery, and officials say the government will soon offer major contracts for oil exploration.

"Libya is still virgin," said Mohammed Abouzaid Naser, an official at the Zawya Oil Refinery. "There are lots of areas that haven't been explored yet."

Libya is looking less socialist by the day and has announced plans to privatize 361 state companies.

Although Kadafi once disdained Americans, he is trying to win them back with promises that he won't support terrorists or try to build nuclear weapons.

"We realize that the world is entering a new stage, and we realize that we should be more open to others," said Miloud El Mehadbi, foreign affairs director for the World Center for Studies and Research of the Green Book.

Most Libyans openly adore Kadafi -- universally known as "The Leader."

"He is an example of freedom, dignity and honesty," said Khaled al-Asma, 28, a goldsmith. "When I see his picture, I feel loving and kindness."

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