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US-Gadhafi Relationship Never Fully Developed Before Uprising

Before the uprising against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi began, the long icy relationship between Libya and the U.S. had been slowly thawing. The rapprochement began in 2003 and had started to show some signs of promise. But  the warming trend had stalled by the time the uprising in Libya began in February because of Libyan demands for U.S. arms sales and hardcore anti-U.S. sentiment in some quarters of Mr. Gadhafi's government.

On a historic trip to Libya in September of 2008, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice broke more than 20 years of diplomatic ice by declaring that her visit was proof that the U.S. has no permanent enemies.  In that year, relations were restored, a new ambassador to Libya was named - the first in more than 35 years - and the onetime adversaries talked of new opportunities for cooperation in nuclear nonproliferation, trade and investment, counterterrorism, and economic development.

But, says Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, the renewed U.S.-Libyan relationship kept getting sidetracked and never progressed very far.

“We embarked, really, on a process of normalization. But during those two years there were several crises, in fact, that plagued the relationship.  And each time that we were able to get the relationship back onto a stable path, one of these events would happen, and the whole thing would be blown off kilter and we’d have to start again,” Cretz said.

Since the 1980s Libya and the United States had clashed militarily and diplomatically. U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously declared Mr. Gadhafi the “mad dog of the Middle East” for Libya’s support for terrorism.  The low point came when 270 people were killed in the Libyan-sponsored bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988.  U.N. sanctions were imposed, leaving Libya deeply isolated.

But in 2003, Libya announced it was renouncing its weapons of mass destruction and said it was giving up using terrorism.  It also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims killed in the bombing of PanAm Flight 103.  

Current and former officials say the U.S. did not rush into a wholesale embrace of Libya and the Gadhafi regime.  However, they say Libya, which was home to an al-Qaida affiliate, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, did prove itself extremely helpful in counterterrorism because of Mr. Gadhafi's fierce opposition to Islamist extremists.  

Mark Kimmitt, a retired U.S. general who served as assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, says the U.S. was looking at some tentative first steps, such as military-to-military exchanges.  

“Well, I think everybody wanted to see where the relationship would go.   Here was a country that at times had been considered part of the axis of terror. They had renounced weapons of mass destruction.  They had become helpful in the war on terrorism.  So what better way to completely close the circle and bring them into a more modern relationship between our countries than a security relationship, as well as other diplomatic relationships,” Kimmitt said.

Documents found in the aftermath of the ant-Gadhafi forces takeover of Tripoli, and released by Human Rights Watch, reveal U.S. and British plans to transfer some terrorism suspects to Libyan government custody where, says the rights group, they were sure to be tortured.  Officials would not comment on the reports.

In any case, the Tripoli-Washington relationship was not moving fast enough to suit the Libyan government. Ambassador Cretz says the Libyans felt their turnabout earned them unfettered access to U.S. military weapons and equipment, but Washington was not about to give it to them, even if it was non-lethal aid or sales.

“We had not promised anything. I mean, they had provided us a list, literally almost something you would write on the back of a napkin in a restaurant, of everything from M-16s (semiautomatic rifles) to F-16s (fighter planes) - a huge list of things.  And we said, this is not the way we do business,” Cretz said.

A $77 million deal to furnish Libya with refurbished armored personnel carriers was in the works but was never finalized, Ambassador Cretz says.  Likewise, Libya’s procurement of C-130 transport planes purchased in the 1970s but never delivered due to the freeze in relations was under discussion with the manufacturer but the deal was never finalized.

Ambassador Cretz says several events cause the relationship to unravel. Chief among them, he says, was the hero’s welcome Libya accorded the only person convicted in the PanAm bombings after his release from Scottish custody in 2009.  He says the Libyans were also upset that Mr. Gadhafi was not invited to the White House for a nuclear nonproliferation summit last year.

It was at that time, he says, that warning bells of divisions in the Gadhafi government over the rapprochement began ringing.

“There was always a group in Libya that did not want a strong relationship with the United States. And we were always in the position of having to battle from day to day and see who was on the particular side of the relationship and who was not. There appeared to be troublesome signs in the summer of 2010, actually, when normal things like permits for cars or household effects (customs) clearance for embassy personnel were being slowed up at an extraordinary rate, which kind of gave us some pause,” Cretz said.

Washington withdrew Ambassador Cretz in January. It is not clear how much the revelation of his candid assessments of Mr. Gadhafi in diplomatic cables released by the antisecrecy group, WikiLeaks, were a factor, but they had clearly displeased the Libyan government.

But with Mr. Gadhafi ousted and a new transitional ruling authority in place, Ambassador Cretz, who has been working in Washington, plans to return to Tripoli.  Asked when, he only smiles and replies, “soon.”

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