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Libya: Is Ghadafi Normalizing Ties With The West?

While the drumbeats of war against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein seem to grow louder by the day, Washington's battle against terrorism has publicly ignored one of its most infamous foes, Libyan President Moammar Ghadafi. Why? Perhaps because Ghadafi appears to have shed his ties to terrorism and launched a major bid to normalize relations with the West.

Prague, 9 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Libyan President Moammar Ghadafi was once among America's most reviled enemies in the Arab world. Ghadafi was a suspected sponsor of terrorism whose home was targeted in a 1986 air strike ordered by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in retaliation for Tripoli's alleged role in a Berlin terrorist bombing.

That was then.

Sixteen years later, Ghadafi appears on the verge of achieving what was unthinkable during the Reagan era: normalizing Tripoli's relations with the West, including Washington.

A major step toward that goal was taken this week.

Ghadafi met with British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien in what officials called his first talks with a British minister since he seized power in a 1969 revolution. After the talks, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abderrahmane Chalgam said Libya is ready in principle to pay compensation to the families of the 270 victims of a 1988 airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. Two alleged Libyan agents were convicted of masterminding the bombing.

O'Brien and Chalgam expressed cautious optimism about future relations. O'Brien said that while Britain still has criticisms of Tripoli's human-rights record, it recognizes that Libya wants to move from being "an outlaw pariah state towards engagement with the West."

After the meetings in Libya, Chalgam said, "We hope that we will continue our contact, our dialogue, and reinforce and enhance our bilateral relations and discussions."

It is still unclear what form any bombing compensation might take. But media reports say Tripoli could offer up to $2.7 billion, or $10 million to the family of each victim.

If compensation comes and Libya also admits responsibility for the bombing, then Tripoli will have met all conditions for the permanent end of economic sanctions placed on it by the United Nations after the bombing.

But while that would cap a remarkable turnaround in Western relations with Libya, such a change has been in the making for some time.

Libya's higher profile has been evident in Europe, where Ghadafi has numerous business interests, including a stake in Italy's top soccer club Juventus. European countries are also the prime market for Libyan oil, its biggest export. Italy is Libya's main European trading partner, taking 42 percent of its exports, mostly oil.

In addition, two of Ghadafi's sons have recently grabbed headlines in Europe. One had an exhibition of his paintings in London, while the other toured Italy as the goalkeeper of his soccer team, the champion of Libya's professional league.

Richard Dean is an economist and Libya analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. Of Libya's budding new image, as personified by Ghadafi's high-profile sons, Dean said: "These people are Western-educated, and they have a far more open view of the world. And now that they're maturing -- they're in their late 20s, early 30s -- Colonel Ghadafi is listening to them a little bit. He's recognizing that perhaps he has to change."

But Dean said that's just part of a larger seismic shift that has occurred in Ghadafi's attitude toward the West since he handed the two suspected airline bombers over to Britain in 1999 and the UN temporarily suspended its economic sanctions. "The main motivation [for change] is economic. I think Colonel Ghadafi, and Libya in general, has woken up to the fact that it needs foreign investment, and it needs to liberalize its economy because the oil revenue and the oil wealth that it has is being spread just a little too thin," Dean said.

Dean said that when world oil prices fell in 1999, Ghadafi made a strategic shift in his foreign policy. He realized that his country could no longer solely rely on oil exports to survive and needed to take steps to diversify its economy and integrate it into the global trading system.

Since then, Dean and other analysts say, Libya has withdrawn its support for Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Ghadafi, meanwhile, has turned his political focus from the Mideast toward Africa, and now seeks to fashion himself as a champion of African interests and a continental leader.

Ghadafi has made a number of recent trips to sub-Saharan Africa, where in many places he is feted as a hero.

African leaders recently nominated Libya, an authoritarian state with an extremely poor human-rights record, to chair the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Leading human-rights groups have urged them to reconsider.

Dean said it's hard to say just why Ghadafi is seeking to boost his position in Africa, but said he may be seeking to leave a legacy. "One theory is that he's trying to become a power broker within Africa because this will strengthen his hand with the West. If the West sees Ghadafi as someone who's very, very influential within Africa, they'll have to take him more seriously, not just from the point of view of relations with Libya, but from their wider interests in Africa," Dean said.

Nonetheless, Libya's main aim is to break down all remaining barriers to foreign trade and investment, especially from oil companies. Dean said Libyan oil production has suffered from the departure of American firms, and that Tripoli would like nothing more than a return of their technological know-how.

Yet Libya is still listed as a sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. And last year, Washington renewed its unilateral economic sanctions against Tripoli for another five years. Those sanctions prohibit U.S. companies from doing business in Libya and threaten penalties against foreign firms that invest more than $40 million there in one year. They have reportedly cost Tripoli billions of dollars in revenue since they were first passed in 1986.

Libya is thus seen as being keen to normalize its ties with Washington, a point that Foreign Minister Chalgam repeated to reporters on 7 August.

Washington, though publicly skeptical, is thought to be amenable to improving its ties with Libya, propelled in part by pressure from American oil companies eager to return to the North African country.

According to Dean, Libya's reaction to the 11 September terrorist attacks also has helped change some minds in Washington.

Ghadafi strongly condemned those attacks, and quickly offered to assist the U.S. in helping track down members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Dean said 11 September gave Ghadafi a great chance to improve his standing with Washington, and, like leaders from Russia to Pakistan, he seized it. "I think those [in the U.S. government] who are a bit warm towards Libya will win. I think we're going to see a significant improvement in relations with the U.S. I think it won't be long before we see unilateral U.S. sanctions against Libya lifted or suspended, or in some way facilitating U.S. oil companies to go back into Libya," Dean said.

Washington's main lingering concern about Libya is its possible development of weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological and chemical arms. But after his talks with Ghadafi, Britain's O'Brien told reporters he received assurances that Libya will cooperate on those issues. "I welcome the fact that Libya was prepared to sign up to, indeed, 20 conventions in relation to weapons of mass destruction and is further considering signing a number of others, including the [UN's] Chemical Weapons Convention. It's considering looking at an agreement on further inspections in relation to nuclear facilities," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said Ghadafi's attitude is a far cry from that of another Middle East leader suspected of harboring weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. O'Brien said the two leaders are a study in contrasts. He said Saddam murders his own people, is in breach of 73 UN resolutions, won't allow UN weapons inspectors in, and won't comply with international law.

Indeed, Washington may attempt to use military force to oust Saddam and achieve its goal of "regime change" in Baghdad.

But in Tripoli, America's main goal may soon be "business as usual," i.e., a return to the lucrative contracts that U.S. oil companies gave up when Washington imposed sanctions in 1986.

Libya, it appears, is ready to talk.