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COLUMN ONE

In Libya, a long-dead hero rises again in east

Omar Mukhtar, a resistance fighter executed by Italian occupiers 80 years ago, has become the spiritual leader of the Libyan revolution.

May 06, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

Soon enough, World War II ended Il Duce's colonial ambitions, along with his life, and Libya went from colony to a U.N. mandate government to independence in 1951, under King Idris. The king, an ally of Mukhtar, erected a public monument and mausoleum honoring him near the Mediterranean harbor in downtown Benghazi. The memorial became a locus of religious and nationalist pilgrimage.

Then in 1969, a young army officer named Kadafi led a rebellion against the king and abolished the monarchy. Kadafi paid homage to the legacy of Mukhtar, scheduling one of his first major addresses on the anniversary of his execution.

But by 2000, the aging Kadafi decided he didn't like the prominent shrine in restive Benghazi, a place where his rule was never popular. Without consulting Mukhtar's family, the son says, Kadafi had the monument torn down and the remains moved 40 miles away, to the sleepy burg of Suluq, where a more modest memorial stands. "My father will never be happy until his remains are back in Benghazi," said the son.

The self-titled "transitional" government now running much of eastern Libya is making plans to erect a new monument to Mukhtar in its previous site downtown, now a patch of overgrown weeds.

But Kadafi didn't completely forsake Mukhtar. He invoked his memory whenever it suited his purposes, as in reparation negotiations with a repentant Italy, eager for Libyan oil and cooperation on immigration matters.

In 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to Libya, met with Kadafi and with Mukhtar's son, and apologized for Italy's conduct during the colonial period. Italy also coughed up a $5-billion aid package.

A year later, Kadafi set off for Rome in a three-Airbus entourage that included Mukhtar's son and the colonel's striking all-female bodyguard squad, decked out in khakis and red berets, and pitched a tent to receive guests outside a restored Renaissance mansion.

"With gelled and carefully dyed hair, the colonel was made up to look like a cross between Michael Jackson and the deranged music mogul murderer Phil Spector," London's Daily Mail reported.

A magnanimous Kadafi called his hosts "my Italian friends," and praised Libya's former colonial masters for having "turned a page in the past." But pinned to his chest was a provocative artifact: the photo of Mukhtar in chains, surrounded by his Italian captors, soon to face the gallows.

On Sept. 16, 1931, the Italians had ordered hundreds, possibly thousands, of Libyans to witness Mukhtar's hanging in Suluq, then the site of a massive detention camp.

"As for me," Mukhtar assures the general in the film, "I will live longer than my hangman."

And so he has.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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