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Blair Trip to Libya Receives Mixed Reviews - 2004-03-26

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's groundbreaking trip to Libya Thursday is drawing mixed reviews from his fellow politicians and the British media.

The photograph of the handshake between Prime Minister Blair and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a man once called the mad dog of the Middle East, dominates the front pages of Britain's main newspapers.

The meeting is even being compared with such historic events as former President Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China, or the 1979 Camp David summit between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin.

Many in Britain have questioned why Mr. Blair would visit Colonel Gadhafi, given Libya's involvement in past terrorism in Britain, most notably the 1988 downing of a U.S. jetliner over Scotland.

But Mr. Blair says the key breakthrough came in December, when Colonel Gadhafi announced he would give up weapons of mass destruction and join the war on terrorism.

"We are showing by our engagement with Libya today that it is possible for countries in the Arab world to work with the United States and the U.K. to defeat the common enemy of extremist, fanatical terrorism, driven by al-Qaida, and to ensure that we have a more secure world because of the absence of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Mr. Blair says he was willing to take the political risk of meeting Colonel Gadhafi if it can make the world safer. "We should be very, very conscious of the dangers of this, but we should still seize the chance if it's there," he said. "Because the alternative is a more uncertain and insecure world, not just out here in the Middle East, but actually in Britain, too."

Britain's opposition Conservative Party has criticized the Blair trip. Its foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram, says Mr. Blair went too far when he called Colonel Gadhafi courageous.

"I do find it very odd to hear someone who says they are giving up terrorism as being described as courageous for doing that," he said. "I think departing from terrorism can hardly be described in those terms. But this all seems to be part of a pre-planned exercise. What I'm saying, now is the visit has taken place, let's see if it's actually going to produce the goods."

Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, is more supportive of the Blair initiative, as its foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, explained.

"The prime minister's quite right; if we can enlist Colonel Gadhafi sincerely and truly in the campaign against terrorism that will be enormously helpful in that campaign," he said. "And if, at the same time, someone who once aspired to be the leader of the Arab world is seen voluntarily to renounce chemical and biological and nuclear weapons, then that has intrinsic significance but it also has very symbolic significance for the whole of the Middle East."

Few details have emerged so far on how Libya might cooperate with the West in fighting al-Qaida. But some British press reports suggest Libya could provide useful intelligence and perhaps even infiltrators who could spy on the elusive network.

Editorial writers for Britain's main newspapers also see good and bad in Mr. Blair's visit to Tripoli.

The Times says the toppling of Iraq's Saddam Hussein inspired Colonel Gadhafi to change his ways.

The Guardian points out that Shell oil company signed a $200-million deal with Libya on the same day as the Blair trip. But it cautions that Libya is still a repressive dictatorship, much as Iraq was under Saddam Hussein.

The Independent echoes that theme and chides Mr. Blair for remaining silent on Libya's human rights record at the same time he promotes contracts for British companies.

Finally, The Financial Times calls the trip a diplomatic success that brings, in its words, "the mercurial Colonel Gadhafi inside the anti-terror tent."

But the paper also says Western governments must now consistently promote the goal of a more democratic Middle East. In the words of the editorial: "Despotism has been tried and has failed. It is time to take a chance with democracy."