After 43 years of eccentric, zany, or comical rule, underscored by Western charges of terrorism, it appears the era of Libya’s Col. Muammar Gadaffi, once called by Ronald Reagan, “the mad dog of the Middle East,” is over.
Col. Gadaffi has been the longest-ruling Arab leader. His sons, who were positioned to succeed him, are either captives or dead.
Gadaffi’s absurd, opera-bouffe costumes, his busty, pistol-packing female bodyguards, his silly antics and claims to be Libya’s “Brother Guide,”(he held no official position), his efforts to lead the Arabs, then black Africa, and his support of all sorts of revolutionary/terrorist groups made the Libyan colonel into the Arab world’s most colorful and controversial leader.
A score of attempts to kill Gadaffi have failed over the years. Israel, Egypt, the US, France, and Britain all sought to assassinate him. The US dropped a 2,000lb laser-guided bomb on his bedroom. It killed his two-year-old adopted daughter.
British intelligence, MI6, tried to kill Gadaffi for supporting the Irish Republican Army by detonated a powerful car bomb in Benghazi, killing a large number of civilians. France’s intelligence service, SDECE, secreted an altitude-fused bomb on Gadaffi’s private jet. All these attempts failed.
But now, it certainly looks as if Gadaffi has used up all his nine lives, and then some. As of this writing, he may still be holed up in his military headquarters at the Bab al-Azizya barracks where I spent a fascinating evening with him. Gadaffi led me by the hand through the ruins of his private quarters that still smelled of fire and smoke.
We spent hours in his gaily decorated Bedouin tent, talking about the Mideast and his admiration for his idol, Egypt’s late leader, Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser. He poured scorn on the other Arab leaders, notably Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, calling him “America’s puppet” a “thief” and “Israel’s dog.” His special contempt was reserved for the Saudi royal family and Gulf oil sheiks, sneering at them as “fat old women in robes.”
The fat old ladies of Arabia finally got their revenge by funding the rebellion that began six months ago in traditionally anti-Gadaffi Benghazi.
The US and Britain still blame Libya for the downing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. Col. Gadaffi reluctantly agreed to pay compensation to families of the victims to get out from under a punishing trade embargo, but insisted that Libya was not responsible and had been framed.
There may be some substance to his claim. A Scottish court was preparing to question the evidence that convicted a cancer-stricken Libyan diplomat, Abdulbasit el-Megrahi when he was released on grounds of compassion.
After examining this case for two decades, my sense is that the attack was engineered by Iran, using terrorist-for-rent, Ahmed Jebril, in revenge for the US shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner over the Gulf five months earlier that killed 290 civilians. The captain of the US warship that shot down the Iranian passenger jet was awarded a medal by President George H.W. Bush. Both Libya and Iran deny any involvement in the Lockerbie crime.
But Libya was caught red-handed in 1989. Libyan agents bombed a French UTA airliner over Chad, killing all 170 aboard. French criminal investigators charged Libya’s intelligence chief Abdullah Senoussi with this crime. I dined with him in Tripoli; he denied being involved and said the French had framed him.
Here, I believe Libya was indeed responsible. The UTA attack was revenge for France’s attempt to assassinate Gadaffi by bombing his aircraft that occurred while the two nations were locked in a military conflict over Chad’s Aouzou Strip, which was said to be rich in uranium.
In the end, Libya forked out $1.5 billion to families of the victims of both airliners. Gadaffi was then brought in from the cold by Washington; US, British and Italian oil firms were granted important new concessions. President George W. Bush proclaimed Gadaffi “an important ally on the war against terrorism.”
France, Britain and the US still wanted revenge. When rebellion erupted in anti-Gadaffi Benghazi six months ago, French president Nicholas Sarkozy, eager for a small conflict to boost his sagging fortunes with rightwing voters, recognized the rebels and had his intelligence service, DGSE, cobble together a “Transitional Council.”
This nebulous creation was composed of Libyan exiles who had lived in the west — as in the case of Iraq, many were “assets” of western intelligence. They were shoved together with Islamic militants who turned out most of the armed amateur fighters.
In spite of a UN resolution to merely “protect civilians,” the French, British, US, Italians, and a scattering of units from other right-wing governments like Canada and Denmark, sent their warplanes against Gadaffi’s feeble forces.
Almost all the real fighting was done by NATO airstrikes, Predator drones and attack helicopters, vectored into their targets by British and French special forces on the ground. NATO naval units played an important role in the final attack on Tripoli. The full role of NATO in overthrowing Gadaffi has yet to emerge.
The armed mobs of gun-waving Libyans merely provided a useful cover for the substantial Western intervention. It will be interesting watching these Western powers jostle for power and control of Libya’s high-grade oil. France and Italy are traditional rivals in North Africa, notably in Tunisia and Libya. Britain and Italy are Libya’s former colonial rulers — unless one also counts the Turks. The United States once had its largest foreign airbase, Wheelus Field, in Libya.
How the mixed bag of anti-Gadaffi exiles and militant Islamists will run the new regime remains unknown. The Western powers will certainly exercise much control over the new government and reap oil riches as a result.
Yet Libya could still remain in crisis as regional, tribal and political groups clash. A small guerrilla war cannot be excluded.
Control of the steady inflow of billions from Libya’s oil exports is a prize that will keep Libya’s many factions in confrontation and fuel the continued oil lust of the Western powers.
NATO’s overthrow of former ally Muammar Gadaffi will also set a precedent for future oil adventures in the event of turbulence in the Arabian Peninsula, Algeria, and, clearly, in Iran. Syria is at least fortunate in having little oil.
It’s very hard to see how Gadaffi can survive the collapse of his regime. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has an arrest warrant out for him and son Seif ul-Islam. Many Libyans want his head.
Gadaffi’s only hope is to flee to refuge in a friendly African nation, perhaps Zimbabwe, Angola or Mali.
At the age of 70, he can’t run too far, or too fast.