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Middle East: Washington To Renew Ties With Libya

Muammar Qaddafi (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, May 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The United States announced on May 15 that it will renew full diplomatic ties with Libya, after praising Tripoli for its "excellent cooperation" in the U.S.-led war on terror.

The decision by Washington to renew ties and reopen its embassy in Tripoli ends more than a quarter-century of hostility between the two countries.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch also announced on May 15 that Libya will be removed from the list of nations that are deemed to be state sponsors of terrorism.

"Probably the most significant step that we're taking today is the announcement of our intent to rescind Libya's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism," Welch said. "This is not a decision that we arrived at without carefully monitoring and assessing Libya's behavior."

Three Decades Of Near-Warfare

The turnaround in relations is nothing short of remarkable.

The United States withdrew its ambassador from Libya back in 1972 and cut off ties in 1980 after a mob sacked and burned the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

In 1986, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered air attacks on targets in Tripoli and the city of Benghazi, blaming Libya for the bombing of a German disco, which killed three people, including two U.S. soldiers. Reagan also imposed a trade embargo, forcing U.S. oil companies to leave the country.

Two years later, Libyan agents helped plan and execute one of the world's worst terrorist attacks: the midair bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.

Renouncing Terror

It was the decision by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi to accept responsibility for Lockerbie, turn over the Libyan agents for trial, and make payments of over $2 billion to the families of the victims that began Libyan's reconciliation with the United States.

In 2003, Qaddafi announced he was renouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. He destroyed his country's chemical weapons stockpiles and dismantled its previously secret nuclear weapons program.

That same year, the UN Security Council lifted international economic sanctions on Libya. The United States followed suit, ending its trade embargo in 2004.

Oil Companies Eager To Return

In economic terms, the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Libya and the United States is not expected to have a great impact, primarily because U.S. investment returned to Libya as soon as the trade embargo was lifted.

"For the American companies that had left in the mid-1980s under orders of the late President Reagan, who had left their assets with their oil fields and had departed, they were also allowed to go back," Manuchehr Takin of the London-based Center For Global Energy Studies explains. "And it has already been more than a year or so that they have gone back, many of them."

Libya is of course of primary interest to the United States and Europe for its oil and gas reserves. At present, Libya produces 1.6 million to 1.7 million barrels of oil per day. But oil analysts say the figure could be boosted significantly with the exploration of new fields and new technology.

"The reported oil reserves of Libya are just less than 40 billion barrels, 39 or so billion barrels," Takin notes. "And if you compare that with another [oil-producing] country in Africa like Nigeria, which has about 35 to 36 billion barrels, oil production in Nigeria is about 2.5 million barrels per day, whereas in Libya, oil production is only about 1.7 million. So comparing the size of reserves of Libya and Nigeria, there is definitely room for Libya to increase its production."

Unlike Nigeria or other oil-producing countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Libya has a geographical advantage. It is a direct neighbor to leading markets in Europe, making it very attractive to investors.

"Like Algeria, it has very light, low-sulfur oil, so its crude oil is very attractive for the refineries in Europe," Takin adds. "And the distance being shorter, oil and gas can go by pipeline or with tankers it's a short sailing distance and therefore, yes, location is an advantage."

Good Example?

Not everyone is happy with Washington's move to normalize ties with Tripoli. "[It's] a horrendous decision. I have stated for almost 15 years now that we should normalize relations with Libya, once Qaddafi is out of power," says Bert Ammerman, whose brother was killed in the Lockerbie bombing.

"What a message to give to leaders of the world that support state-sponsored terrorism: that you can kill Americans and innocent citizens and then eventually, because of big business or oil, our government will find a way to normalize relations," he adds.

But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on May 15, argued that Libya could serve as a model and inspiration to countries currently defying the international community -- like Iran and North Korea.