Libya's Moammar Khadaffy, once branded "the mad dog of the Middle East" by Ronald Reagan, is celebrating 40 years in power in spite of a score of attempts by western powers and his Arab "brothers" to kill him.
In 1987, I was invited to interview Khadaffy. We spent an evening together in his Bedouin tent. He led me by the hand through the ruins of his personal quarters, bombed a year earlier by the U.S. in an attempt to assassinate him. Khadaffy showed me where his two-year old daughter had been killed by a 1,000-pound bomb.
"Why are the Americans trying to kill me, Mister Eric?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.
I told him because Libya was harbouring all sorts of anti-western revolutionary groups, from Palestinian firebrands to IRA bombers and Nelson Mandela's ANC. To the naive Libyans, they were all legitimate "freedom fighters."
Last week, a furor erupted over the release of a dying Libyan agent, Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, convicted of the destruction of an American airliner over Scotland in 1988.
Hypocrisy on all sides abounded. Washington and London blasted Libya and Scotland's justice minister while denying claims al-Megrahi was released in exchange new oil deals with Libya.
The Pan Am 103 crime was part of a bigger, even more sordid story. What goes around comes around.
1986: Libya is accused of bombing a Berlin disco, killing two U.S. servicemen. A defector from Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad, claims it framed Libya. Khadaffy demands Arabs increase oil prices.
1987: The U.S. tries to kill Khadaffy but fails. Eighty-eight Libyan civilians die.
1988: France wages a secret desert war with Libya over mineral-rich Chad. France's secret service, SDECE, is ordered to kill Khadaffy. A bomb is put on Khadaffy's private jet but, after Franco-Libyan relations abruptly improve, the bomb is removed before it explodes.
1988: The U.S. intervenes on Iraq's side in its eight-year war against Iran. A U.S. navy Aegis cruiser, Vincennes, violates Iranian waters and "mistakenly" shoots down an Iranian civilian Airbus airliner in Iran's air space. All 288 civilians aboard die. Then vice-president George H.W. Bush vows, "I'll never apologize ... I don't care what the facts are."
The Vincennes' trigger-happy captain is decorated with the Legion of Merit medal for this crime by Bush after he becomes president. Washington quietly pays Iran $131.8 million US in damages.
Five months later, Pan Am 103 with 270 aboard is destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. The U.S. and Britain pressure Scotland to convict al-Megrahi, who insists he is innocent. Serious questions are raised about the trial, with claims CIA faked evidence to blame Libya.
Some intelligence experts believe the attack was revenge for the downing of the Iranian airliner, carried out by Mideast contract killers paid by Iran. Serious doubts about al-Megrahi's guilt were voiced by Scotland's legal authorities. An appeal was underway. Libyans believed he was a sacrificial lamb handed over to save Libya from a crushing U.S. and British-led oil export boycott.
1989: A French UTA airliner with 180 aboard is blown up over Chad. A Congolese and a Libyan agent are accused. French investigators indict Khadaffy's brother-in-law, Abdullah Senoussi, head of Libyan intelligence, with whom I dined in Tripoli. Libya blames the attack on rogue mid-level agents but pays French families $170 million US.
I believe al-Megrahi was probably innocent and framed. Scotland was right to release him. But Libya was guilty as hell of the UTA crime, which likely was revenge for France's attempt to kill Khadaffy.
Pan Am 103 probably was revenge for America's destruction of the Iranian Airbus. In 1998, Britain's MI6 spy agency tried to kill Khadaffy with a car bomb.
In the end, the West badly wanted Libya's high grade oil. So Libya bought its way out of sanctions with $2.7 billion US total in damages. The U.S., Britain, France and Italy then invested $8 billion US in Libya's oil industry and proclaimed Khadaffy an ally and new best friend.
Happy birthday, Moammar.