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West may rue close ties to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi

By Paisley Dodds

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 24 2011 8:10 a.m. MST

In this May 29, 2007, file photo Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, meets Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, at his desert base outside Sirte south of Tripoli. When Moammar Gadhafi told the world he was a changed man, some leaders were skeptical. Others, like Britain's Tony Blair, were quicker to see the benefits of rapprochement with the oil-rich nation. Now, as his regime crumbles, questions are being raised about whether Britain, the United States, and others were too quick to trust a volatile despot linked to terrorism and accused of oppression at home.

AP Photo/Leon Neal

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LONDON — When Moammar Gadhafi told the world he was a changed man, some leaders were skeptical. Others, like Britain's Tony Blair, were quicker to see the benefits of rapprochement with the oil-rich nation.

Now, as Gadhafi's regime crumbles, questions are being raised about whether Britain, the United States, and others were too quick to embrace a volatile despot linked to terrorism and oppression as they sought lucrative business deals.

Those deals worth billions are now in jeopardy as Libya hurtles toward civil war. The strategic decision to build ties with the likes of Gadhafi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Tunisia's Ben Ali also threatens to further inflame anti-Western anger in the Arab world.

Blair's role was particularly vital in Gadhafi's international rehabilitation.

The former British prime minister flew to Libya in 2004, holding talks with Gadhafi inside a Bedouin tent. He praised the leader for ending Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons program and stressed the need for new security alliances in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. British commercial deals soon followed.

Britain sold Libya about 40 million pounds ($55 million) worth of military and paramilitary equipment in the year ending Sept. 30, 2010, according to Foreign Office statistics. Among the items: sniper rifles, bulletproof vehicles, crowd control ammunition, and tear gas.

"What did the Foreign Office think Colonel Gadhafi meant to do with sniper rifles and tear gas grenades — go mole hunting?" asked Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Although Britain's current government led by David Cameron has revoked dozens of export licenses to Libya in the wake of the Libyan violence, many say the very weapons and equipment Britain has sold to Libya are being used against the country's people.

Britain's elite Special Air Service, or SAS, also participated in recent training for Libyan soldiers in counterterrorism and surveillance. Robin Horsfall, a former SAS soldier, said at the time that the training was a mistake: "People will die as a result of this decision," he warned.

Since Scotland's release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi — the only man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland — U.S. lawmakers have accused Britain of backing the Libyan's freedom in exchange for oil deals. The former Libyan intelligence agent was accused of placing a bomb on the plane. The bombing killed 280, many of them American students.

"Moammar Gadhafi is a terrorist — plain and simple," said U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, after Libya's former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil told the Swedish tabloid Expressen Wednesday that Gadhafi had personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing.

But Washington has also cultivated ties with Gadhafi.

In 2008, former president George W. Bush sent his top diplomat Condoleezza Rice to Libya for talks with Gadhafi. She called the trip "historic" and said it had "come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged."

The same year, Texas-based Exxon Mobil signed an exploration agreement with the Libyan National Oil Corp. to explore for hydrocarbons off the Libyan coast.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay recalled that U.S. leaders discouraged her from pressing Libya on its poor human rights record.

"In the last few days (of the Bush administration) I did meet with some representatives of the U.S. administration," Pillay told The Associated Press in an interview. "They said to me the human rights record of Libya is fine so you needn't touch that."

Many in the intelligence community say they viewed Gadhafi's supposed transformation with cautious optimism at the time.

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