WASHINGTON—The United States announced Monday that it's re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Libya and removing it from the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors, completing a remarkable turnabout with a country whose leader was once at the top of the U.S. enemies list.
Senior State Department officials acknowledged that the move was aimed in part at influencing Iran to give up uranium enrichment, a process that can create fuel for nuclear weapons, and comply fully with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi voluntarily gave up his oil-rich country's nuclear weapons program in December 2003. The message to Iran, U.S. officials said, is that it will reap concrete benefits if it does likewise—although that prospect now seems remote.
"Libya serves as an important model as we push for changes in policy by other countries, such as Iran and North Korea," said Assistant Secretary of State David Welch.
Monday's action, announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will put a full U.S. Embassy in Tripoli for the first time since 1980. The United States and Libya established small diplomatic offices in each other's capitals in 2004, after Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction programs under international inspection.
In 2003, Gadhafi's regime accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. It agreed to pay more than $2 billion in restitution.
Rice said in a statement that Libya is being removed from the department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and from a separate list of countries not certified as cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
While the decisions are subject to veto by Congress, there appears to be strong support for them among leading Republicans and Democrats.
But the decision was attacked bitterly by some families of Lockerbie victims and by Libyan opponents of Gadhafi's authoritarian government, who called it a betrayal of President Bush's principles.
"I think frankly this decision disgraces America," said Daniel Cohen, whose daughter Theodora, 20, was killed in the Lockerbie bombing. The Cohens, who've been among the most outspoken opponents of rapprochement with Libya, said they and other families were informed of the decision only by e-mail on Monday morning.
Mohamed Eljahmi, whose brother Fathi is in a Libyan jail because he called for democratic reforms, said Bush's actions contradict his statements that pushing for democracy is his foreign policy priority.
Eljahmi and the Cohens argued that American policy was being dictated by U.S. business interests in Libya.
As recently as 2003, Libyan officials allegedly played a role in a proposed assassination attempt against then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
But Henry Crumpton, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said Libyan cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies is "strong and getting stronger."
"They have made direct and important contributions to our national security. They have worked with us to track operatives and networks, terrorist groups throughout the region, some leading into Iraq," Crumpton said.
Among the groups Libya has helped fight, he said, are al-Qaida affiliates including the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known by its French initials GSPC, which has tried to overthrow the Algerian government.
Since 1999, Libya has been holding five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on what most observers see as trumped-up charges that they spread the AIDS virus among Libyan children in the city of Benghazi. Libya is thought to be looking for a face-saving way to release the foreigners.
Libya was a longtime sponsor of Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal, and U.S.-Libyan relations hit bottom in 1986, when President Reagan ordered airstrikes in retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin disco frequented by U.S. servicemen. Libya said Gadhafi's adopted baby daughter died in the U.S. airstrike.
U.S. business groups praised the decision to establish full ties with Libya. Many U.S. government restrictions on doing business in Libya already had been repealed, and major American oil companies announced last December that they'd reached agreement with Libya to resume operations in its oil fields.
Whether the new Libya policy will affect Iran's nuclear calculations remains to be seen.
David Mack, the vice president of the Middle East Institute, said the decision is a "strategic plus" for Bush, because previously, countries at odds with the United States only knew the potential cost of not cooperating on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
"They really didn't know what happened if you cooperated," said Mack, who was a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Libya when Gadhafi took power in 1969.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007