To Meet Gaddafi, One Must Wait ... and Wait ...
TRIPOLI, Libya, Sept. 5 -- There are virtually no signs in English in this shabby capital. But past one of the entrances of the heavily fortified compound where Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi makes his home, a small sign offers a translation of the Arabic sketched in red: "Welcome to the soil of the steadfast residence."
For nearly 40 years, Gaddafi has ruled this country, even though he has no formal title and still retains only the rank of colonel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Tripoli on Friday, the first by a top U.S. diplomat in 55 years, signified how much U.S.-Libyan relations have evolved since Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to give up his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.
But the chaotic scene when Rice met Gaddafi showed that the Libyans still have to learn how to hold a news event.
Reporters traveling with Rice and a handful of Libyan reporters and photographers were bussed out early to Gaddafi's sprawling compound in southwestern Tripoli. The facility is ringed with three large concrete blast walls, with numerous guard towers and tanks. The reporters were brought into a combination library and conference room, handed copies of Gaddafi's manifesto "The Green Book" and told to wait.
And wait and wait and wait.
Back at the hotel that served as her base, Rice was also waiting. Eventually, she decided to slowly start out for the compound, even circling it a couple of times.
Word came that Gaddafi was ready. Excited Libyan officials ushered the reporters outside, telling them to gather on the steps leading into the building. Then they waited some more.
And some more.
One of Gaddafi's sons was suddenly spotted in the distance, which suggested something was happening. When Rice's motorcade finally made it past the blast walls and into the compound, chaos ensued. Reporters were urged to rush into another room, just off the driveway. The room was small, but the ceilings were 20-feet high. The strong scent of incense hung heavy in the air.
There, standing in a corner as still as a wax statue, was the leader.
Gaddafi wore a simple white cotton robe and a black Libyan fez, which covered part of his flowing hair. His robe was accented by a brooch in the shape of Africa and a striking colored slash decorated with shapes of Africa. He also wore a pair of highly polished black shoes.
Gaddafi appeared to be the epitome of cool, tall and distinguished, no longer the "mad dog" of the Reagan years.
Reporters and cameramen jockeyed for position and filled the tiny room. Gaddafi remained still and somber, though his face lit up when he saw Rice. Many devout Muslim men do not shake the hands of women, and when Rice approached, Gaddafi simply placed his right hand over his chest, a traditional and respectful welcome.
While Rice had made it past the reporters, her aides did not. The brief gap in the reporters' bodies quickly closed behind her. Gaddafi was prepared to meet her staff, but there was no sign of them. "That's strange. They were right behind me," a baffled Rice told Gaddafi.
As the scrum of reporters tried to creep ever closer to Gaddafi and Rice, her aides scrambled to find some way into the meeting. Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch literally had to climb over the chairs and wedge his way through cameramen in order to shake Gaddafi's hand. So did Legal Counsel John B. Bellinger
Eventually, the reporters were ordered out of the room, and the meeting began in earnest.
As reporters spilled into the night air, one U.S. reporter exclaimed, "He's so hot. I can't believe it, he's so hot."
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