Gadhafi's role in Darfur talks sets back new image

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Nasser Nasser / AP

TRIPOLI, Libya — He's been crossed off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, has won a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council and is slowly opening his oil-rich economy to an eager West.

But longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi showed last week that his evolution from strongman to statesman still has a way to go.

On his biggest stage in years — launching new peace talks for Sudan's Darfur region in his home city of Sirte, Libya — Gadhafi delivered a meandering and often insulting monologue, declaring the negotiations a lost cause and assailing Western countries for meddling in African affairs.

"I always say leave these problems to their own people," Gadhafi said. He later added, "I feel this conference of ours should stop at this point." After the speech he vanished from the conference altogether, leaving the work of solving one of the world's deadliest and most intractable conflicts to the U.N. and African envoys he'd just criticized.

The diplomatic effort has indeed stalled, crippled less by the former revolutionary's dismissive rhetoric than by the decision of key rebel leaders to boycott the talks. But the entire episode left Darfur rebels scratching their heads, diplomats muttering "no comment" and one message above all: Gadhafi isn't ready for prime time.

"It was about the most astonishing statement I've ever heard a head of state make," said a veteran Western observer who was in attendance last Saturday, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment on the speech publicly.

Diplomats said after the speech that Gadhafi was annoyed that two major rebel figures — Abdol Wahid al Nur, a founder of the Darfur rebellion, and Khalil Ibrahim, a leading military commander — had rejected his entreaties to come to Sirte. He referred to them in his 50-minute speech, which he delivered wearing a military-style shirt and a thinning carpet of curly black hair.

"I had expected my sons Abdol Wahid and Dr. Khalil to be here," Gadhafi said. "These are major movements without which we cannot achieve peace."

The Western observer, who met with senior Libyan diplomats in Tripoli before the conference, said the comments betrayed Gadhafi's frustration.

"They started out two to three weeks ago with very high hopes, which crumbled as the various rebel leaders made it clear they were not coming," the observer said.

At other times during the often contradictory address, Gadhafi appeared to defend Sudan's military campaign in Darfur, which the Bush administration has labeled genocide. Gadhafi is an ally of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who backed Libya's bid to host the talks.

"The Sudanese government said it was a question of sovereignty," Gadhafi said. "The government felt compelled to stop the rebel movement even with violence because that is its legitimate right."

Afterward, Ahmed Ibrahim Diraige, the leader of a rebel group that calls itself the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance, could only respond: "I understood what he said to be something philosophical."

Gadhafi's behavior was all the more surprising because of how hard he'd worked to host the talks, the first on Darfur in 18 months. He claims to have met with hundreds of people from Darfur, and he persuaded U.N. and African Union mediators to choose Libya as the site despite the serious reservations of the United States and other Western countries.

"We tried to influence them on the venue," said Andrew Natsios, the Bush administration's special envoy to Sudan. "We support the U.N. and AU process, although I don't always agree with every decision."

Asked for his reaction to Gadhafi's speech, Natsios smiled weakly and said: "I'm not going to talk about that."

After years of isolation owing to Gadhafi's support of the Abu Nidal Organization and other terrorist groups and his refusal to extradite two Libyans accused in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, Libya's relations with the United States have been improving steadily since 2003, when Gadhafi renounced his nuclear program. The Bush administration lifted economic sanctions and restored diplomatic ties with Tripoli, and U.S. officials describe Gadhafi as an important ally against terrorism.

Gadhafi, who's ruled for 38 years, still brooks no criticism and maintains strict controls over free speech. But before the Darfur conference began to collapse, it had appeared to be a golden opportunity for the erstwhile pariah to burnish his credentials as a pan-African statesman.

The gleaming new conference center in Sirte, near his birthplace, is Gadhafi's monument to that image of himself. Giant posters feature a serious-looking Gadhafi, gazing upward but eyes hidden behind those ever-present shades, alongside images of such legendary African leaders as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.

Two days before the Darfur talks began, Gadhafi presided over the signing of a peace agreement in Sirte between the government of Chad and four rebel groups. The conflicts in Chad and neighboring Sudan are intertwined — each country accuses the other of backing rebels on its soil — and analysts said the Libya-brokered truce had been an encouraging sign for the region.

But now, after the dismal start to the Darfur peace talks, all signs in Sirte point to failure.