Union Tribune

January 29, 2004

Issa recounts Libyan visit with Gadhafi

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON Two things about Col. Moammar Gadhafi struck Darrell Issa when the congressman met the Libyan leader last weekend:

First, Gadhafi wore purple from head to toe. Second, he spoke at length and with evident grief about the daughter he lost in the 1986 attack on his home launched by then-President Reagan.

In controlled and sometimes nostalgic tones, Issa said, Gadhafi talked of his own country as a "true democracy" and sought to "educate us as to how the civilized world should work."

Gadhafi "spoke in terms of 20-year-old grievances, about the lack of respect shown by an administration long out of power," said the Vista Republican, who joined six other congressional representatives in a two-hour meeting during which Gadhafi restated a promise that Libya would surrender its weapons of mass destruction.

The goodwill visit gave the lawmakers a rare opportunity to study the 61-year-old leader.

Gadhafi has often been described as eccentric, and Issa said he found "that the description was accurate."

In Libya, where most people dress as Westerners do, Gadhafi arrived at the meeting in a tent-covered, concrete bunker "in a gown of all purple, including a purple hat, scarf (and) robes," Issa said.

Much of Gadhafi's opening statement was devoted to the attack on his home nearly two decades ago, which Reagan launched in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco that killed a U.S. soldier and a Turkish woman. Thirty-seven people were killed in Libya in the U.S. attacks, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter, who was reportedly 17 months to 3 years old.

The home, which has never been rebuilt, is now a shrine with pictures and pieces of a U.S. F-111 fighter-bomber that took part in the strike and went down, killing its two crew members. The bedroom in which Gadhafi's daughter died has been preserved, with her bloodstained bed encased in glass.

"He lives in that moment of his daughter being lost in the 1986 attack on his home," Issa said. He added, "There was no question it was grief in his presentation."

The bunker where the congressional delegation met Gadhafi was a modest place on the outskirts of Tripoli, perhaps 800 feet from the destroyed home, Issa said. It was covered with white cloth to look like a tent, and lawmakers sat on sofas arranged in a rectangular shape.

Libya announced last month that it would surrender its chemical and biological weapons and end any work on a nuclear weapons program. On Tuesday, a U.S. military transport plane flew a large cargo of nuclear-related equipment and material out of Libya.

Decades of U.S. and U.N. sanctions imposed for Libya's support of terrorists have hurt the country's oil wealth.

Issa said Gadhafi's restatement of his promise on weapons was "more absolute and bold . . . than I expected."

"He was sending a clear message that he got a wakeup call," Issa said. "We presumed . . . that his wakeup call comes from watching what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq and seeing that there was a need for his change in a changed world."

Some reports note that because Gadhafi is getting older, he might feel pressure to choose a successor. Issa said it was clear that the Libyan leader is grooming one of his sons Saif for "a major role in the government."

Saif, an architect and Ph.D. candidate in London, is chairman of the foundation compensating families of the 270 people who died when a Libyan terrorist operation downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The lawmakers had a separate meeting with Saif.

Though Gadhafi speaks English, the lawmakers spoke to the leader through an interpreter. At one point, however, Gadhafi addressed Issa in English, expressing surprise that the congressman who is of Lebanese descent was not speaking to him in Arabic.

"I said, 'I don't choose to offend you with my Arabic,' " said Issa, who knows some Arabic, but not "well enough to speak to a head of state."