Britain's spies recruited an extremely unlikely ally


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The Independent Online

The history of Britain's relations with Libya over the past 30 years is replete with ironies, of which being at war with a regime which less than a decade ago it was taking the lead in courting is only the most recent.

For that very rapprochement in the long, initially clandestine run up to Tony Blair's visit to Muammar Gaddafi's tent in 2004 was itself an extraordinary twist, one so implausible that John Le Carre might have thought twice about including it in one of his novels. For the point man in those negotiations with MI6 officers -- reportedly in Gaddafi's home town of Sirte as well as in venues ranging from Tripoli to the Travellers' Club in Pall Mall -- was Moussa Koussa, the senior figure - much more an intelligence man than a diplomat - whom the Thatcher government had sent packing more than two decades earlier when, as ambassador to London, he threatened the lives of Libyan dissidents in London.

He has denied involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, the $2.7bn Libyan reparations for which were a key part of what made the "deal in the desert" possible. Nor has the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher been pinned on him. But they had happened, as did the shipment of arms to the IRA, when he was person of real substance in the Gaddafi regime. Not, on the face of it a likely candidate to become Britain's friend at the Libyan court.

Much has been said about the initial approach to the SIS which led first to a meeting of its officers with Muammar Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the day before the bombing of Baghdad began in March 2003.

And then to a series of confrontations in which Moussa Koussa, increasingly confronted with facts which appeared to belie Libya's stated commitment to renouncing weapons of mass destruction, finally authorised the site inspections which showed Libya was finally ready to fulfil its promise-and to bring in reportedly valuable intelligence on the activities of the Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan.

Very few British politicians were ready to criticise the prime minister for helping to see off a Libyan WMD threat. Not all the other benefits that accrued are yet clear. British ones among with them, with, for example, the oil and aerospace industries.

Peter Mandelson admitted in a recent Independent interview that Britain did not do enough to press the Libyan leader on his appalling human rights record. Did Britain take a tougher line with Libyan dissidents than it would have done before the rapprochement? We might have had to wait 50 years for all the answers. Now there is a chance that some of them will emerge sooner than that. And that perhaps is the final irony of them all.