A very weird leader

Profile: Moammar Gaddafi
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First, an archetypal interview with the world's most outrageous statesman. On 26 October 1989, an Italian journalist from the RAI-DUE channel is questioning Moammar Gaddafi about the murder of an Italian national on the streets of Tripoli.

First, an archetypal interview with the world's most outrageous statesman. On 26 October 1989, an Italian journalist from the RAI-DUE channel is questioning Moammar Gaddafi about the murder of an Italian national on the streets of Tripoli.

Gaddafi: "I have not heard about this incident and I am sorry that such an incident happened. When did it happen?"

Journalist: "This Italian national was killed two days ago."

Gaddafi: "I hope that he insured his life."

Journalist: "What does that mean? It is not clear."

Gaddafi: "I mean I hope that he has taken out a life insurance policy so that his family can benefit."

Journalist: "Are you aware than an Italian national was killed or not?"

Gaddafi: "No, this is the first time I hear about this."

Journalist: "This is incredible. Has the ambassador not informed you about this? The Libyan ambassador to Italy, in Rome, was summoned to the foreign ministry, which voiced the government's protest. Has the Libyan ambassador not told you anything?"

Gaddafi: "Maybe he has told the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison. I have already said I am not a president of a republic or prime minister."

Journalist: "Has the Libyan press not talked about this killing?"

Gaddafi: "I do not read the newspapers."

Incredible is not the word for it. Moammar Gaddafi is a very weird person. The last time I saw him, at an Arab summit in Cairo, he arrived in a white limousine surrounded by gun-girls - his very own Kalashnikov-toting brunettes running beside his car - and then walked immediately and deliberately towards the conference lavatory, pretending to confuse it with the assembly entrance. Egyptian president Hosni Moubarak, one of the few Arab leaders to comprehend the humour as well as the arrogance and danger of Libya's peacock prince, grabbed his arm and physically dragged him in the right direction while the robed Gaddafi smiled wanly at the television cameras.

It was ever thus. This is the man, after all, who supervises his own military parades - which mark the anniversary of his coup d'etat against King Idris on September 1 1969 - by ordering, over his mobile phone, new squads of soldiers and missiles to appear in the streets. This is the man who told the Algerian regime that it had squandered the million and a half martyrs who died in the war against France because it didn't continue across North Africa to "liberate" Jerusalem; who idolised Nicolae Ceausescu but warned Romanians against another "dictator" once Ceausescu had been shot.

Gaddafi's Green Book, a distinctly odd collection of immensely boring essays, has been published in dozens of languages. The book urges the world to adopt his alternative to both capitalism and communism - a system of government run by people's "committees" and people's "bureaus" - which, so he claimed, inspired Gorbachev's perestroika in the Soviet Union. Given Russia's subsequent economic collapse, it's not a boast that we've heard recently. But the stories - alas, all true - go on and on.

Gaddafi it was who once turned up to a non-aligned summit in Belgrade with two horses and six camels on a separate plane; the Yugoslavs allowed him to graze the camels in front of his hotel - where he pitched his tent and drank fresh camel milk - but they declined to permit him to ride to the conference on one of his white chargers. It would, they said, be "inappropriate". Several of the camels still languish in Belgrade zoo. Readers are permitted to ask whether Gaddafi should not be there too.

The reality of Gaddafi, however, is more complex than these embarrassing tales would suggest. Gaddafi likes to shock. He likes to be obtuse, provocative, unorthodox, to present his freakish views in contrast to the studied hypocrisy of other Arab regimes and the equally hypocritical lectures of the West. Why shouldn't he support "liberation" movements in Ireland, the Philippines, Palestine, Ethiopia, Liberia, Somalia or Sudan when Western nations allowed Israel to trample Palestinian rights, to bomb Lebanon with impunity, to hold a stockpile of 250 nuclear warheads?

And in an Arab world exhausted by corruption and retreat, unable to understand the difference between a bomb in a Berlin disco and a bomb dropped in southern Lebanon, Gaddafi's voice sounds a note of clarity. He is, after all, among that select and privileged group of Arab dictators to be bombed by the United States. He lost his adopted daughter in the usual fiasco of mistargeted American bombs in April 1986, when one aircraft attacked his private palace in Tripoli - shades of the Nato missile that hit Milosevic's residence last year - and when Washington said, as usual, that it wasn't trying to kill the leader. Gaddafi was planning to call his palace the "Green House" - in contrast to the white variety in Washington - until someone told him that greenhouses had a more specific meaning in English.

And now, of course, Gaddafi the world thinker, writer of the Green Book, inventor of the Libyan People's Popular Masses ( Jamahariya) - the official name for Libya - is redesigning himself. Still the leader of pan-Arabism, still offering unity to Syria, Egypt and Sudan (none of whom want it) and still the messiah of Islam, he has acknowledged Libya's responsibility for killing a British policewoman outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984, he has handed over the two Lockerbie suspects - although partly on his own terms - and sanctions have been partially lifted. He admits that some of the "liberation" movements he assisted were not really "liberation" movements at all. It was a mistake. An error. He had been fooled by them.

And so international pariah Gaddafi has become international negotiator Gaddafi, ready to involve himself in the swamp politics of central Africa or offer his assistance to France in securing the release of hostages in the Philippines - albeit hostages held by a group whose mentors, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, were once funded by Gaddafi himself. He returned to Africa as a trans-continental figure when the Algerian president, Abdulaziz Bouteflika, welcomed him last month to the first Organisation of African Unity summit he had attended in 20 years. Gaddafi was thanked for trying (vainly) to end the 14-month border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and for his efforts to send a peacekeeping force to the Congo. His 60 soldiers are still in their Entebbe hotel rooms.

His desire to help France, however, has more to it than meets the eye. Just as 10 years ago he received the thanks of the then French president, François Mitterand, for securing the "release" of a female French hostage held by Abu Nidal - imprisoned all the time, it should be added, in Tripoli - so he would now like French gratitude for his efforts in gaining freedom for the hostages on Jolo. And he would like that gratitude to be expressed, the French suspect, by an official muzzling of a certain Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiÿre.

I am one of the few people to have met both Gaddafi and Bruguiÿre, and they have some characteristics in common: both are ruthless and utterly convinced of their own probity and take each other very seriously. So seriously, in fact, does Bruguiÿre take Gaddafi that he is trying to frame a personal indictment against him for the bombing of French UTA flight 772, a DC-10 passenger jet that was brought down by a bomb over Chad, killing all 170 passengers and crew, on 19 September 1989. This particular atrocity has been largely forgotten - except in France - because of the earlier Lockerbie bombing in December 1988, for which two Libyan agents now stand accused in The Netherlands.

According to evidence that Bruguiÿre believes he has, Gaddafi wanted to attack French interests in Africa - the UTA plane came down in the Sahara - in order to pursue his conflict with France over Chad, whose then president, Hissein Habre, was the repeated victim of failed Libyan-funded coups. Amid the wreckage of the aircraft, French investigators found part of a Samsonite suitcase covered by a layer of pentrite, an explosive manufactured in Czechoslovakia (after the "velvet" revolution in Prague, President Vaclav Havel admitted that the former communist authorities had sent Semtex explosives to Libya and could not obtain their return. Gaddafi denied the charge and insisted that Havel was lying in order to gain Western support. Havel said that Libya never even paid for the Semtex). Bruguiÿre concluded that Libya's diplomatic mission in Brazzaville, the capital of the Congo Republic, had set up the bombing.

In March last year, six named Libyans were sentenced in absentia and given life sentences in Paris for the UTA bombing. But Bruguiÿre - known to be right-wing, he once expressed his concern that Europe was under siege by "Islamic fundamentalism" - is now going after Gaddafi. And Gaddafi is responding. "When a civilian plane is bombed, we can only have compassion naturally," he told a French interviewer. "But no one (in the French courts) until now has established the truth. The verdict was not pronounced in front of them [the six defendants], so it does not reflect the truth. We must know the real circumstances."

Still Bruguiÿre doesn't give up. In a Marx Brothers-style farce, he is said to have tried to enter Libya on a French warship and in uniform as "Commandant Bruguiÿre", only to be turned round by Libyan port authorities. Most attempts to confront Gaddafi end in similar operatic pathos. Only Nelson Mandela understood the shrewdness of a man whose rogue nature appeals to so many in poverty-crushed nations. But given the French secret service's propensity to deal with Gaddafi's henchmen, Paris, too, it seems, is prepared to deal more leniently with the Libyan pseudo-monarch. So will Bruguiÿre be muzzled?

For gone are the days when Gaddafi was the "super-terrorist" of the world - a role taken over by Ossama bin Laden and, no doubt soon, by other "monsters" with no proven crimes against them - and forgotten are those speeches in which Gaddafi promised to "liquidate the running dogs" who opposed his dictatorship. They were indeed liquidated, both in Libya and in Europe, just as the Imam Moussa Sadr, the Lebanese Shia cleric who fell out with Gaddafi over money during a visit to Libya in 1978, appears to have been murdered, along with a Lebanese journalist accompanying him. Their baggage turned up on a return flight from Tripoli to Rome - but without its owners.

Instead, we are presented with the thoughtful, pensive, statesmanlike leader of a nation with proven reserves of 30 billion barrels of oil, a man who told a Euro-African conference in Tripoli that "we are not pirates or rebels or terrorists". His 1986 bombardment by the Americans was "imposed" on him. "It is America that loves war," he announced. "It is Nato that loves war. It is Israel that loves war."

Few Arabs would disagree with such standard rhetoric. But they all appreciate the joke that still goes the rounds in the Middle East; of Gaddafi, President Moubarak, of Egypt, and Saddam Hussein driving across the desert only to find their path blocked by a lion. Saddam, author of the "mother of all battles" cannot persuade the lion to move. Nor can Moubarak, leader of the largest Arab nation. But when Gaddafi lifts the leathery ear and mutters into it, the lion races off across the desert. "What did you tell him?" Moubarak and Saddam chorus. "I offered him," Gaddafi replies, "unity with Libya."