In an angry tirade to the Libyan people on Tuesday, Col. Moammar Gadhafi warns that if protesters don’t go home, “everything will burn.”
Could Gadhafi pull a repeat of Saddam Hussein’s stunt that wasted billions of dollars of oil, did lasting damage to the Persian Gulf, and impaired the health of thousands of Kuwaitis for years?
During Hussein’s final moments of the first Gulf war in February 1991, he set ablaze dozens of oil fields in Kuwait.
Time magazine this morning quoted a Gadhafi confidant who said he had ordered loyalists to sabotage Libyan oil and gas pipelines, “to serve as a message to Libya's rebellious tribes: It's either me or chaos.”
That report reminded me of a story told me by Gadhafi’s interpreter when I was waiting to interview the mercurial leader in March 2004.
I had flown into Libya in the dead of night, just three hours after a long-standing ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Libya, to join up with a congressional delegation led by Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
Two events had caused the United States to reverse its aversion to Gadhafi and his bizarre regime: an agreement by Gadhafi to admit guilt and pay reparations for the Dec. 1988 downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerie, Scotland, an attack that killed 270 persons; and a more recent decision to give up his nuclear weapons program.
The story Gadhafi’s interpreter told me provided the key to understanding the Libyan leader’s sudden about-face decision to hand over his nuclear weapons gear to the United States and Britain after more than a year of pretending he did have it.
“Gadhafi was watching CNN,” the interpreter told me when they showed the images of a U.S. medic wearing latex gloves probing the mouth of Saddam Hussein and checking his hair for lice.
U.S. troops in Iraq had just discovered Hussein’s hiding place, and had pulled him up like a rat with beady eyes from a hole dug beneath a hut along the Tigris River.
“Gadhafi turned white when he saw those pictures,” the interpreter said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to become another Hussein.’ That’s when he decided to give up his weapons program.”
The very next day, Gadhafi summoned the British ambassador and said he was ready to give up his weapons. Teams of U.S. and British intelligence officials and nuclear technicians streamed into Tripoli to secure the equipment and prepare it for shipment to the United States.
Even today, Libya’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, provided by the international network of Pakistan nuclear engineer A.Q. Khan, are being studied at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge, Tenn., bomb plant.
By Tuesday evening, the opposition had seized control of much of Cyrenaica, the eastern part of the country that includes Benghazi where most of the country’s oil wells are found.
The Italian state-owned oil company, ENI, shut down its production in Libya as a precaution and has closed its gas pipeline to Europe.
Rumors that Gadhafi has ordered his air force to launch air strikes on protesters in Tripoli continue to circulate. Many protesters fear for the worst, after the bloodbaths they have already witnessed when loyalist troops fired into crowds with heavy machine guns, sometimes tearing the limbs off of bodies.
Gadhafi has demonstrated a capability to embark on dramatic shifts, and can literally turn on a dime.
When Sen. Biden and members of Congress listened to his rambling two hours speech in March 2004 to the People’s Congress in Sirte, for the first half hour they thought he was talking in his sleep.
“Then all of a sudden I realized what he was saying was so amazing that I started writing it down so I can could report to my constituents,” California Democrat Susan Davis told me at the time. “I took 24 pages of notes!”
In addition to explaining why he was getting rid of his nuclear weapons program, which almost none of the “people’s representatives” in the Congress were aware even existed, Gadhafi regaled them with chapter and verse of Libya’s long, checkered history of supporting terrorist groups around the world while pledging that he now was cutting of that support.
Gadhafi’s 180 degree shift in 2004 was based on sound geopolitical and economic reasons. Fifteen years of U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions on Libya in response to the Lockerbie bombing had taken their toll on the Libyan oil industry, and Gadhafi was crying uncle.
Add to that the threat he felt from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and the capture of the Iraqi dictator, and the table was set for Gadhafi’s “conversion.”
Will Col. Gadhafi bring down the house on top of him before agreeing to leave power, or before a group of military officers forces him to leave at gunpoint?
Stay tuned. It wouldn’t be the first time Gadhafi had shocked the world.
Also watching Gadhafi closely are Iran’s theocratic rulers, who until now have suppressed dissent with a ruthless blend of utter violence, counter-intelligence infiltration of opposition groups, and plain old police-state tactics of beatings, arrests, and show trials.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted on Wednesday that Iran was behind the protests in Libya (he said the same about Egypt), and predicted that the waves of protests now rolling across the Middle East would also hit Europe and North America.
But Iranian dissidents think his compass is wrong. “We think the next dictator to fall will be Tehran’s Islamic fundamentalist regime,” Rahman Haji Ahmadi, secretary general of the opposition Free Life party of Iranian Kurdistan (PJAK) told me in an interview this past weekend in Europe.
“Kurds can’t do it alone,” he said, even though PJAK has supplied many of the foot soldiers since the mass protests that began in June 2009. “But if Kurds unite with Azeris, and Balouchis, and Persians and other opposition groups across Iran, we will be victorious.”
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