Libyan rebel commander Abdel-Hakim Belhadj, seen here last week in Tripoli,… (AFP / Getty Images )
Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Washington — The sometimes odd contortions of U.S. policy in the Islamic world have seen a new twist in the strange case of Abdel-Hakim Belhadj.
A few years ago, documents show, Belhadj was a wanted Islamic militant whom the CIA handed over for "debriefing" to the government of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, then an ally in the fight against terrorism.
Today, Belhadj is a top military commander in the provisional Libyan government and Kadafi is on the run, his government toppled, in part, by U.S. and allied airstrikes.
Photos: The Libyan conflict
"We like and appreciate what NATO did for us," a smiling Belhadj said in an interview Saturday, referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign against Kadafi's forces. "We now have a popular Libyan revolution that doesn't have any Islamic ideology."
Belhadj conceded that he might sue the CIA — he alleges that he was tortured while in its custody in Bangkok, Thailand — but said he didn't have any hard feelings against the United States or the West. He said his group had rejected overtures to affiliate with Al Qaeda and that Libya's new government will not be Islamist.
"We believe that Libya should have relations with all nations," Belhadj said at his heavily guarded seaside complex in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. "We Muslims need to interact with all other nations, and all other religions. This is what Islam tells us."
Belhadj's saga has echoes in other shifting U.S. alliances. Washington spent billions to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, only to see that nation become a breeding ground of Islamic extremism targeting the West. The George W. Bush administration marched on Baghdad to oust Saddam Hussein, only to see the new Iraq become a close ally of the stridently anti-American Iran.
Belhadj's emergence as a major player in Libya's post-revolutionary government has raised anew thorny questions about Islamic influences and potential anti-Western currents in the new Libyan order.
Not everyone is happy with the turn of events.
"Belhadj is a bad man," said one former CIA operative with long experience in the Middle East who declined to be identified. "He's a capable Al Qaeda field leader.... Belhadj was a serious enough actor for us to find him, kidnap him and render him. He's somehow had a conversion to democracy? What do they base that on? It's just a pipe dream."
But the official U.S. position is a stated belief in the new Libyan leadership's professed desire for a representative and democratic state after more than four decades of Kadafi's autocratic rule.
Nonetheless, many rebels who fought to oust Kadafi have Islamic militant ties — notably Belhadj, who earned his stripes as a young fighter against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, using the nom de guerre Abdullah al Sadiq.
The CIA detained him in 2004, according to documents found by Human Rights Watch in the abandoned Tripoli office of Kadafi's former intelligence chief, including a fax seeking Libyan assistance in the agency's plan to transport him to Libya.
"We also appreciate your allowing our service direct access to Al Sadiq for debriefing purposes once he is in your country," said a March 6, 2004, fax from the CIA to Libyan authorities.
The fax provided the office and cellphone number of an apparent CIA contact, but cautioned that Al Sadiq should be treated "humanely," and sought guarantees that "his human rights will be respected."
A generation after Belhadj fought in Afghanistan, Libya was fertile ground for Islamists seeking to fight U.S. troops in Iraq. Some had links to Belhadj's former organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Kadafi, once a backer of terrorist groups in Europe and elsewhere, came to view Islamists and Al Qaeda as a threat to his autocratic rule. This is where Kadafi and the former Bush administration found common ground.
Kadafi's regime dispatched many Islamists or suspected Islamists to prisons, including Tripoli's notorious Abu Salim lockup, which was liberated by rebels last month. In one cell of the now-abandoned jail, graffiti display an affinity for anti-Western thinking.
On one wall hangs a faded newspaper photograph of a hijacked aircraft approaching the World Trade Center, with one tower already ablaze. The anonymous writer has drawn an arrow to the plane and written "Eagles of Al Qaeda."
Nearby, graffiti lament the death of Osama bin Laden. "You are going to paradise," the scrawled ode proclaims. "God willing, America will never have peace."
Belhadj insists that such sentiment does not bespeak an affinity for Al Qaeda among Libyan Islamists or the rebel movement.
"They are just emotionally with Al Qaeda," said Belhadj, who himself spent six years in prison in Libya before being freed.