The United States and Libya sealed a historic turnaround after decades of terrorist killings, American retaliation, suspicions and insults with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's peacemaking visit Friday with Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's mercurial strongman.
In a room redolent of incense, Gadhafi greeted Rice – the highest-ranking American official to visit Libya in more than a half-century — at his official Bab el-Azizia residence. It is the same compound hit by U.S. airstrikes in 1986 in retaliation for a deadly Libyan-linked terrorist attack in Germany. The attack killed Gadhafi's baby daughter.
The United States considers Gadhafi rehabilitated since the days when President Reagan called him the “mad dog of the Middle East,” because of the Libyan's surprise decision in 2003 to renounce terrorism and give up weapons of mass destruction.
His government has also agreed to resolve legal claims from the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and other alleged terror attacks that bore Libyan fingerprints.
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Gadhafi and Rice exchanged pleasantries, with Rice offering Gadhafi greetings from President Bush and Gadhafi asking about the hurricanes that have hit or are headed to the U.S. mainland, before dozens of reporters, photographers and television cameramen were ushered out.
Their small talk belied almost 30 years of dismal U.S.-Libyan relations that hit their low point in the 1980s when Reagan ordered the retaliatory airstrike and Gadhafi swore revenge.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Libya in 1972 after Gadhafi renounced agreements with the West and vilified the United States in speeches and public statements. Washington cut off diplomatic relations with Libya after a mob sacked and burned the American Embassy in 1979.
Gadhafi hosted Rice at a traditional Muslim dinner — the evening meal that breaks the day's fast observed during the holy month of Ramadan.
In a televised address to the nation this week he said he considers the United States neither a friend nor an enemy.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera television last year, Gadhafi spoke of Rice in most unusual terms, calling her “Leezza” and suggesting that she actually runs the Arab world with which he has had severe differences in the past.
“I support my darling black African woman,” he said. “I admire and am 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.”
Rice is the first secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953 and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957.
“It demonstrates that when countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction the United States is prepared to respond,” Rice said. “It's a beginning, it's an opening. It's not, I think, the end of the story.”
Rice's visit comes amid a surge in interest from U.S. companies, particularly in the energy sector, to do business in Libya, where European companies have had much greater access in recent years. Libya's proven oil reserves are the ninth largest in the world, close to 39 billion barrels, and vast areas remain unexplored for new deposits.
Rice said she was eager to promote commercial ties and an agreement on cultural and educational exchanges was expected to be signed during her visit.