Rehabilitating Libya

Last week’s verdict in the Lockerbie case could signal a new chapter in US-Libyan relations and put an end to 30 years of confrontation between the two countries, according to officials from both countries and recent news reports.

Abdel-Basset Al-Megrahi, 49, was sentenced to life in January 2001 for his part in the bombing of PanAm Flight 103. The bombing killed 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground, 189 of whom were Americans.

The plane exploded while flying over Lockerbie, Scotland, and so Al-Megrahi faced a long and protracted trial under Scottish law. Last week, a special Scottish appeal court set up in the Netherlands confirmed the guilty verdict, rejecting Al- Megrahi’s appeal.

In reaction to the verdict, the United States released a statement. “This decision affirming the conviction of a Libyan agent for the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 represents a vindication of efforts by successive US administrations,” it said. “It also underlines the unshakable determination of the United States not to forget, but to hold terrorists accountable for their acts.”

Libya, however, attacked the five-judge court’s decision, and said it would file an appeal with the UK’s House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights. “The verdict confirms once again that the United States and Britain have imposed their sway on the court to enforce a political verdict,” was the Libyan response.

Furthermore, thousands of Libyans took to the streets to stage peaceful protests at the United Nations office in Tripoli. They called on the UN to intervene to “save the political hostage Abdel- Basset Al-Megrahi.”

But the heated statements coming out from Tripoli appeared to be mainly for local consumption. Recent Arab and Western news reports, by contrast, said that Libya, the US and Britain were preparing for a round of talks to discuss how to settle their dispute over the Lockerbie incident for good.

A similar meeting was held after the original verdict was issued last year, and the two sides agreed to meet again after the appeal process ended. The US and Britain are expected to ask Libya to pay compensation to the families of the victims. Tripoli is likely to accept and to pay the compensation, but only after finding a formula that does not hold the Libyan state — or Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi personally — responsible for the Lockerbie bombing.

During a recent Arab League meeting in Cairo, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Salam El-Treiki confirmed that preparations were under way for a new round of talks with Washington and London. “Dialogue is better than wars and sanctions,” he said.

Since 1986, Washington has been enforcing a ban on travel and trade with Libya, after accusing the country of state-sponsored terrorism. The State Department’s list of countries that support terrorism cites Libya, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. Libya has been on the list since 1979.

It is not just the US which has gripes with Tripoli. The United Nations also imposed trade and travel sanctions in 1992, after Libya refused to hand over the two suspects in the PanAm bombing. Those sanctions were suspended in April 1999, however, after Gaddafi turned over the two men to the special Scottish court in the Netherlands.

The Lockerbie incident has been the main obstacle to improving US-Libyan relations. Though the UN sanctions on Libya were suspended in 1999, the US opposes completely lifting its own sanctions until Libya admits responsibility for the bombing and pays compensation to families of the victims.

But it was no accident that Libya was excluded from US President George W Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, which branded Iraq, Iran, and North Korea together as sponsors of terrorism. The US has an interest in Libya that goes far beyond Lockerbie.

America has a vested interest in Libya’s energy and oil services. The American oil industry, for its part, is eagerly awaiting the go-ahead to resume business with the Libyans, as relations between the two countries continue to thaw. In 1986, all four US oil companies operating in Libya — Marathon, Conoco, Amerada Hess and Occidental — pulled out of Libya after then US President Ronald Reagan ordered all American companies out of the country — costing them billions of dollars.

In recent years, Gaddafi, who was nicknamed the “mad dog of the Middle East” by former US President Ronald Reagan, has worked hard on improving his image worldwide and particularly on improving relations with the United States. Through these efforts, he has tried to project himself as a respected regional leader rather than a troublesome warmonger.

After 11 September, for example, the Libyan leader condemned the attacks on America, offered his condolences and urged his countrymen to donate blood to help the victims. He also provided information to the US about Libyans with possible links to Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qa’eda network. He has closed down guerrilla camps and expelled terrorists from his country, in well-publicised moves. Gaddafi has also sought to attract foreign investment in Libya’s oil-based economy and worked to resolve conflicts in Africa.

Analysts say that rebuilding relations between the US and Libya could benefit both countries and put the US in a better position to influence Libyan policies. It could also see the possible removal of Libya from the State Department’s terrorism list. US officials, however, are warning that no changes in US policy toward Libya are being contemplated until the country complies with UN Security Council requirements.