Obama Shakes Hands with Gaddafi
Updated 9:43 p.m.
By Glenn Kessler
"Mad dog" no more.
Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who former president Ronald Reagan once denounced as a "mad dog," supped on pasta just two seats away from President Obama at the Group of Eight summit today and even secured a handshake with the U.S. president.
Gaddafi is attending the summit in his role as president of the African Union, the latest step in a global reemergence of the North African country after years of isolation for its links to terrorism, including the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. But Libya settled outstanding claims for billions of dollars and gave up its efforts to build weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Now it even has a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Last year, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became the most senior U.S. official to visit Libya in more than half a century, but Obama is the first U.S. president to shake Gaddafi's hand. (Gaddafi did not shake Rice's hand but bowed respectfully.)
Gaddafi, one of the grand survivors of Middle Eastern politics, seized power in a coup in 1969, and though much of his career he used Libya's vast oil wealth to bolster terrorist movements around the world.
At the meal, Gaddafi, as is his fashion, wore a colorful outfit. He sported a red and gold cap, with a red and gold sash draping over his shoulder and a matching shirt and pants in black and tangerine with a wave-like pattern.
Gaddafi has also erected a luxury Beduoin tent in the football field of a police barracks near where the summit is being held. News reports from Italy said the Libyan leader's tent is equipped with such as luxuries as a plasma screen TV and and is being guarded by several of his female "Amazon" bodyguards.
Denis McDonough, a White House official, said before the meal that Obama would not hesitate to greet Gaddafi. ''He doesn't intend to choose which leaders he'll shake hands with and which he won't: he'll be very happy to greet everyone he meets," he said, adding: ''He wants to see cooperation with Libya continue in sectors such as Tripoli's decision a few years ago to give up its nuclear program, an absolutely voluntary decision that we consider positive."
Gaddafi, however, appears not to have forgotten past slights. Addressing Italian lawmakers last month, he compared the U.S. bombing of his heavily-fortified bunker in Tripoli in 1986, in which an adopted infant daughter was killed, to al-Qaeda's attacks and claimed the invasion of Iraq had turned the country into ''an arena for al-Qaeda." Reagan ordered the bombing raid after a series of provocations by Libya, including setting off a bomb in Berlin's La Belle discotheque, killing a U.S. soldier and a Turkish civilian, and injuring some 200 others, including 63 U.S. soldiers.
As Obama was shaking hands with Gaddafi, families of Pan Am 103 victims were gathered at the British Embassy in Washington and the British consulate in New York, speaking via video conference with Kenneth MacAskill, the Scottish justice secretary, and pleading that the convicted Lockerbie bomber not be returned to Libya.
Stephanie Bernstein of Bethesda, whose husband, Michael, was killed in the Pan Am bombing, said the video conference was a "wrenching" experience, as victims' families made heartfelt pleas that Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi not be returned to Libya even though he is said to be suffering from prostate cancer. She said that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has supported the families' position, but the reports of Obama's handshake was a blow.
"I was shocked, absolutely dumbfounded," she said tonight. "I think it sent the wrong signal. This has undermined our efforts to make sure Megrahi is never released." If he is returned to Libya, she said, families believe he will be quickly freed from jail, rather than finish serving a sentence of at least 27 years. He was convicted in 2001.
Under a 2007 deal struck between Libya and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it is up to MacAskill and Scottish First Secretary Alex Salmond to decide whether Megrahi, 57, is returned to Libya to serve out his sentence. Salmond and MacAskill have insisted the decision will be made on "judicial" grounds, not political or economic concerns with the oil-rich country.
Posted at 5:48 PM ET on Jul 9, 2009
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