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Rice meets with Kadafi, former pariah

The Libyan is gracious, but the two countries are not friends yet.

September 06, 2008|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi welcomed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to his high-security personal compound Friday, in symbolic recognition that after nearly three decades of animosity, the U.S.-Libyan relationship is now officially normal, if not entirely friendly.

Kadafi, once called a "mad dog" by President Reagan, shared a Ramadan meal with Rice in his private kitchen and inquired politely about her health and recent U.S. hurricanes. "We have a lot to talk about," Rice told the longtime pariah as they met in a plush reception room of the Azizia military complex, which U.S. warplanes bombed in 1986.

U.S. officials portrayed the meeting as the reward for a five-year rehabilitation that has seen Kadafi dismantle his unconventional weapons program and begin settling claims for acts of Libyan terrorism, including the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

The government-controlled news media put a different spin on it, reporting that the meeting was proof "of how much the Americans need Libya," a U.S. official said.

The Bush administration considers Libya's transformation as one of its top foreign policy achievements and a model for other adversary states, such as Iran.

The Rice appearance was the highest-level U.S. visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon stopped in Libya in 1957.

But Kadafi, who has called Rice "my darling black African woman," seemed to have a more casual attitude toward the encounter. He left Rice and the U.S. contingent waiting in their hotel for about an hour past the scheduled meeting time, until she ordered her motorcade to head toward the complex anyway. They circled it for about 15 minutes before the Libyan leader was ready to receive them.

Kadafi had them ushered into a reception room with a crush of reporters and TV crews in a scene of pandemonium.

When Rice's aides got momentarily lost in the scrum, she told "brother leader" that she couldn't understand what had happened to the retinue.

"They were right here behind me," she said with a shrug.

Rice's aides grinned at the chaotic scene and at Kadafi, an imposing figure in a sweeping white traditional robe and trademark round black cap. Kadafi shook the hands of Rice's male aides, but, in the habit of some Arab men, laid his right hand above his heart as a greeting to her.

Rice told Kadafi that President Bush was "so excited" by the prospect of an improvement in U.S.-Libyan relations.

Even so, Rice and Kadafi have been making it clear that mistrust still hangs over the relationship like a dusty Saharan haze.

Talking to reporters en route from Lisbon, Rice said the visit was not a sign that "everything has been resolved between us."

"There's a long way to go," she said.

In a TV address to the nation Monday, Kadafi said it was "not necessary for us to be friends with America," and classified the two countries as "neither friends nor enemies."

He said Reagan and his ally British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were "almost insane" in their attitude about Libya in the 1980s.

The meeting was arranged only after Libyan officials finally signed a deal, which could be worth billions, to settle all claims against the government for the Lockerbie bombing and the 1986 bombing of a German disco that killed three and wounded dozens.

But Libyan officials have yet to deposit any money in a settlement fund, a subject Rice said she would take up with Kadafi. Some members of Congress and victims' families contend that Rice should not have met with him until the claims were settled.

She said she also planned to take up the subject of Libya's human rights record, which U.S. officials consider atrocious. Among those in jail is Fathi Jahmi, who has been held since 2002 and charged with, among other things, unauthorized contacts with American officials.

Some U.S. critics have raised questions about the Libyans' sincerity.

Kadafi's son and possible heir, Seif , told the BBC in an interview broadcast Sunday that although Libya had accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, it did so only to end international sanctions on the country.

"We played with words. . . . It doesn't mean we did it in fact," he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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