LIBYA — For the first time in more than half a century, a high-ranking U.S. official, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is in Libya. She arrived here on Friday to meet with the man whom Ronald Reagan famously called the "mad dog of the Middle East."
But that was then. Rice, after waiting at the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel for an hour as the Ramadan sun set, finally got word that Col. Moammar Gadhafi was ready to receive her at his Bab al Azizia residence — the same compound bombed by the U.S. in 1986 during the height of tensions with Libya.
Amid a swarm of cameras and reporters, she walked into the receiving room where Gadhafi, clad in a flowing white robe, purple and gold sash, and a green Africa brooch, stood waiting to greet her. He didn't shake her hand; instead, he put his hand against his heart in a gesture that North African men often use to greet women.
As far as the Bush administration is concerned, the Libyan leader is rehabilitated, his country removed from the State Department's terrorism list, his debt to the families of the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 on its way to being paid, Libya's stockpiles of chemical weapons destroyed and its secret nuclear weapons program dismantled.
'A historic moment'
His initial chat with Rice could not have been more pleasant. He politely inquired about her trip; Rice thanked him for his hospitality. He asked about the hurricanes; she told him America had dodged Gustav but was bracing for Hanna. And that was it for the public chitchat, as the Libyan authorities quickly shooed the media from the room while Rice sat, smiling broadly.
"Quite frankly, I never thought I would be visiting Libya, so it's quite something," she said.
Rice called the visit "a historic moment," albeit "one that has come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged, a lot of Americans in particular. It is also the case that this comes out of a historic decision that Libya made to give up weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism."
Although the State Department announced Rice's trip a few days ago, details of the visit had been shrouded in so much secrecy that even as her plane left Lisbon, Portugal, for the flight to Libya, many on board didn't know where she would be meeting Gadhafi.
A private session
In the end, they met at his compound in Tripoli. After the diplomatic niceties were dealt with, Rice and Gadhafi met one-on-one — though with note-takers and interpreters — State Department officials said, for what had been billed as a more interesting private exchange than a diplomatic meeting.
After all, the Libyan leader had professed his "love" for the American secretary of state. "I support my darling black African woman," Gadhafi told the network Al Jazeera last year. "I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders."
A senior administration official said that Rice planned to raise some issues, including human rights and the final resolution of legal claims from the 1988 bombing of Flight 103.
Rice's visit has been two years in the making. The Bush administration announced in 2006 that it was restoring diplomatic ties with Libya as a reward for Gadhafi's decision in 2003 to renounce terrorism and abandon work on weapons of mass destruction, a reversal that Bush administration officials were quick to attribute to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
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