During his recent official visit to Libya, prime minister Massimo D’Alema of Italy, the North African country’s former colonial ruler, had the agreeable experience of seeing Mu’ammar Qaddafi trying to ingratiate himself to the west by pledging to join the west’s war on Islam and using his influence to unlock African doors for Rome.
D’Alema, who arrived in Tripoli on December 1, had an hour of talks with Qaddafi, and the two sides issued a joint statement the following day. In it, Libya pledged to deny aid and protection to “those responsible for terrorist acts” ï a euphemism for Islamic activists opposed to western hegemony and Israeli occupation of Muslim lands. “The two sides understand the need to deny aid and protection to those responsible for terrorist acts and expressed the hope that further measures of cooperation can be adopted to prevent, contain and repress such acts”, the statement said.
The Italian prime minister could not have been under any illusions that the US was the real object of the colonel’s charm offensive, but he knew that the pledge to fight ‘terrorism’ would help to blunt any US criticism of his visit. He could also see for himself that Qaddafi was now tame enough to stay the pro-west course he had felt obliged to adopt in past months, and that Italy could clinch lucrative deals while Uncle Sam was playing hard to get.
The Americans know that the only “acts of terrorism” Qaddafi commits nowadays are directed against Islamic activists, including members of the Libyan, Algerian and Egyptian movements. US officials now say that Tripoli has reformed and is no longer a ‘terrorist state’, as did Ronald Newman, the assistant secretary of state for North Africa, on November 30, during a lecture organised by the Middle East Institute.
Newman said that his country was aware of a noticeable change in Libyan policy and that Tripoli was no longer offering aid to terrorism or trying to acquire weapons of mass-destruction. He also said that Libya was not ‘another Iraq’, and that Washington’s resumption of diplomatic relations was not dependent on Qaddafi being removed from leadership of the country.
But caution was called for, he said, and Libya must first prove that it can be a respectable member of the international communit, particularly by opening its installations to international inspection to show it is not making weapons of mass-destruction.
But Qaddafi has already neutralised other western powers, such as Britain and France, by surrendering the Libyan suspects in the Lockerbie bombing, compensating the relatives of the British police-woman killed by a gunshot from the Libyan embassy in London, and by declaring his government’s readiness to pay compensation to the families of those killed in the 1989 bombing of a French jet over Chad. He reportedly admitted Libya’s responsibility for the bombing in June.
This series of climbdowns by Tripoli is good enough for EU countries. Britain is resuming diplomatic relations with Libya and is determined to compete with Italy, France and Germany for a slice of Libyan trade ï particularly now that the rise in the oil-price will boost Libya’s GDP by 5 percent next year. The almost-total isolation caused by the UN sanctions since 1992 has forced Libya to invest its petrodollars wisely instead of wasting them on weapons and crazy economic and political projects, with the result that the economy has been growing in recent years at a healthy rate of more than 6 percent.
And now that it is free to spend its wealth, it is embarking on huge development-projects that are making western businessmen’s mouths water. According to Italian businessmen, Libya will tender major infrastructure projects in future years. It is also planning to extend a $30-billion-dollar aqua-duct project begun in the 1970s. Libyan Arab Airlines is looking to buy 20 new aircraft and to modernise its airport facilities. Other projects that could be tendered include the building of a railway link to Egypt.
For the time being, Italy is Libya’s main trading partner. It imports about half of Libya’s petroleum production of 1.45 million barrels a day. And Libya acquires machine-tools, chemical products, pharmaceutical and agricultural products from Italy. Rome is keen for new contracts following the recent agreement involving Italy’s ENI oil-company to conclude a $5.5-billion pipeline project connecting Libya and Sicily. Italy is determined to protect its present lead and prospects for future contracts, and is calling on western countries to normalise relations with Libya.
In Tripoli, D’Alema said that it was “important to have a dialogue with this country, which is on its way to returning fully to the international community.” After returning to Rome he sent letters to all his counterparts in the EU and NATO countries, urging them to normalise ties with Tripoli as soon as possible.
It would indeed be ironic if D’Alema succeeds in bringing Libya in from the cold. In previous years, when Qaddafi was anxious to establish his credentials as a revolutionary, Italy was the butt of his anti-imperialist rhetoric. And Qaddafi has often demanded that Libya receive compensation for the ravages inflicted during Italian rule. After the colonel took power in 1969, he expelled 25,000 descendants of Italian colonists, and nationalised Italian companies and foreign residents’ property. Italy is seeking compensation for both, of course.
But D’Alema is not looking for total success in his mission of ending Libya’s isolation, as he well knows that if Washington normalises with Tripoli, Qaddafi, like any other Arab dictator, will prefer to deal with ‘the sole superpower’, rather than with middle powers such as Italy. His fond hope must be that Uncle Sam will remain a prisoner of his arrogance, and continue to shun Libya, while allowing other western powers to trade with it. That may explain why he is not prepared to invite Qaddafi to Rome just yet, which could provoke Washington into invoking the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which allows it to impose penalties on non-American firms that invest more than $40 million a year in the energy-sectors of these countries.
However, past deals by European oil-companies, including ENI and Total SA of France, have been quietly overlooked. And US companies, eager to share in the bonanza, have been quietly lobbying for the abrogation of this legislation.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999