The Big Question: Is the West right to resume friendly relations with Gaddafi's Libya


Why are we asking this now?

Because the United States Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, broke bread with the mercurial Libyan leader at a historic meeting in Libya last Friday, sealing his rehabilitation after he renounced his weapons of mass destruction in 2003. The visit – the first by a US secretary of state in more than half a century – followed years of estrangement over the Lockerbie affair.

It was arranged after Colonel Gaddafi agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, in which 270 people were killed, and to the victims of the bombing of a Berlin disco in 1986. In return, the Americans are to pay compensation to the civilian victims of US bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi, prompted by the disco killing.

Ms Rice's meeting with Colonel Gaddafi was held in the Tripoli compound bombed by American warplanes in 1986. The Americans renewed diplomatic relations in 2006, three years after Libya, branded a "rogue state" by successive US administrations, said it was renouncing terrorism and WMD.

Who else has rewarded the Libyan leader?

Tony Blair was the first European leader to beat a path to the Libyan leader's desert tent in March 2004. As a result of Colonel Gaddafi's co-operation on terrorism and on WMD, the two countries were able to put behind them the dark memories of Libya's weapons supplies to the IRA and the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984.

Later in 2004, Colonel Gaddafi pitched his Bedouin tent in Brussels, where he was welcomed to the European Union's headquarters along with his crack team of female bodyguards. The next leader to head for Libya was President Nicolas Sarkozy of France – and his then wife Cécilia – in July last year, who had mediated to secure the release of five Bulgarian medics and a Palestinian accused of deliberately infecting 438 children with HIV-tainted blood at a Benghazi hospital.

The colourful colonel managed to obtain an official invitation to Paris for a trip which was widely seen as a humiliation for the French President, who was accused of fêting a brutal dictator on World Human Rights Day in December last year.

Last but not least, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, came calling. His country has courted the Libyan leader in the hope of stemming the tide of African migrants coming ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa – inside the EU. Despite an agreement for joint coastal patrols, however, more than 100 Africans per day have continued to land on Lampedusa. On 30 August, Mr Berlusconi flew to Benghazi to sign a "friendship" deal under which Italy will pay billions of pounds in reparations for 32 years of colonial rule. Mr Berlusconi told Colonel Gaddafi that Italy apologised and "fully and morally recognises the damage inflicted on the Libyan people during the colonial period", from 1911 to 1943.

Behind all these visits, however, lies the economic reality of Libya's vast oil and gas wealth, which can provide lucrative contracts for Western partners barred from trading during the long years of UN sanctions imposed after the Lockerbie bombing.

Can we trust him?

Western governments seem to think so, in the light of his renunciation of WMD, but they would do well to remember how the foremost exponent of Arab unity in the 1970s turned his back on Arab leaders by suddenly deciding to take his country into the African Union. Before that, he had toyed with the idea of a union with Egypt. The late US president Ronald Reagan called him the "mad dog of the Middle East". But the Libyan leader gives as good as he gets: only last year, he was musing about Ms Rice on Al-Jazeera television. He was "very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders ... Leezza, Leezza, Leezza ... I love her very much. I admire her and I'm proud of her because she's a black woman of African origin."

Far from being an international joke, though, the Libyan regime under its dictator of almost four decades has a ghastly human rights record. He ignored an appeal from Ms Rice to release Libya's most prominent political prisoner, Fathi al-Jahmi, who has been in jail since 2002.

Why did the colonel give up WMD?

That's a key question. The Bush administration likes to say that he gave up his chemical weapons stockpiles and nuclear programme because he was worried that after the neo-conservatives began to train their guns on Saddam Hussein after the suicide attacks of 11 September 2001, his regime would be next on the US hit list. However, a contributing factor must have been the seizure by the US, UK, Germany and Italy of a German ship bound for Libya in March 2003. The ship BBC China, which had been tracked for nearly a year by the Americans, was carrying thousands of centrifuge parts to enrich uranium. Gaddafi had already sent out feelers to the West amid the military build-up in Kuwait before the Iraq invasion, but the interception of the BBC China accelerated the process. On 19 December 2003, Colonel Gaddafi made a surprise announcement that he was giving up WMD, and his decision was immediately welcomed by President George Bush and Tony Blair.

How much of a threat was Libya?

Despite having an active programme, Libya was "years away" from a nuclear weapon, according to a senior official with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear agency. Libyan co-operation helped the UN weapons inspectors to unravel the network of the Pakistani nuclear scientist, A Q Khan, who, according to recent US reports, sold Colonel Gaddafi a nearly complete set of blueprints and instruction manuals for a nuclear warhead. The IAEA is expected to wrap up the investigative phase of its probe into Libya's clandestine WMD programme in the next few months in order to switch to routine safeguards inspections. That's as close as the IAEA ever gets to closing a file.

What about Lockerbie?

The Libyan national who is serving a life sentence for the Lockerbie bombing, the former intelligence agent Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, has been given leave to appeal his sentence after top secret documents were passed to Britain by a foreign power. Questions remain about who placed the bomb and what was the motivation for blowing up the Pan Am aircraft, which took place five months after the US shot down an Iranian civilian airliner. With conspiracy theories abounding, some now say that Iran masterminded the Lockerbie bombing, while Megrahi's defence lawyers have in the past pointed the finger at a Palestinian group that operated in Germany at the time of the bombing.

Should Gaddafi be invited to Britain?

Yes

*He has been a pariah too long and should be brought back into the community of nations

*Trade and tourism would get a shot in the arm from an official visit by the Colonel

*After the nation fell in love with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Britons will go mad for the Colonel's glamorous female bodyguards

No

*Colonel Gaddafi's regime needs to show more commitment to human rights first

*He is far too mercurial to be a reliable partner; a visit would be a public embarrassment

*Once a cheater, always a cheater – look how he deceived the world over his weapons of mass destruction

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