Khadafy cut figure of a bizarre leader, defiant to the end
TRIPOLI, Libya - In flowing brown Bedouin robes and black beret, hailed as the “king of kings of Africa,’’ the aging dictator swept onto the global stage, center front at the United Nations, and delivered an angry, wandering, at times incoherent diatribe against all he detested in the world.
In that first and only appearance before the UN General Assembly, in 2009, Moammar Khadafy rambled on about jet lag and swine flu, about the John F. Kennedy assassination, and about moving the United Nations to Libya, the vast desert nation he had ruled for four decades with an iron hand.
As dismayed UN delegates streamed out of the great domed hall that autumn day, a fuming Khadafy declared their Security Council “should be called the ‘Terror Council,’ ’’ and tore up a copy of the UN charter.
The bizarre, 96-minute rant by Libya’s “Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution’’ may now stand as a fitting denouement to a bizarre reign, coming less than two years before Khadafy’s people rose up against him, and before some in that UN audience turned their warplanes on him.
As rebels swarmed into Tripoli late Sunday and his son and onetime heir apparent Seif al-Islam was arrested, Khadafy’s rule was all but over, even though some loyalists continued to resist.
If captured, Khadafy, 69, faces trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In June, the court issued arrest warrants for Khadafy, his sons Seif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief, accusing them of crimes against humanity during the crackdown against dissenters.
More than any of the region’s autocratic leaders, perhaps, Khadafy has been a man of contrasts.
He was a sponsor of terrorism who condemned the Sept. 11 attacks. He was a brutal dictator who bulldozed a jail wall to free political prisoners.
He was an Arab nationalist who derided the Arab League. And in the crowning paradox, he preached people power, only to have his people take to the streets and take up arms in rebellion.
For much of a life marked by tumult, eccentricities, and spasms of violence, the only constants were his grip on power - never openly challenged until the last months of his rule - and the hostility of the West, which branded him a terrorist long before Osama bin Laden emerged.
The secret of his success and longevity lay in the vast oil reserves under his North African desert republic, and in his capacity for drastic changes of course when necessary.
One spectacular series of U-turns came in late 2003. After years of denial, Khadafy’s Libya acknowledged responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.
Libya agreed to pay up to $10 million to relatives of each of the victims, and declared it would dismantle all of its weapons of mass destruction.
The rewards came fast. Within months, the United States lifted economic sanctions and resumed low-level diplomatic ties. The European Union hosted Khadafy in Brussels. Tony Blair, as British prime minister, visited him in Tripoli, even though Britain had more reason than most to detest and fear him.
Then, in February, amid a series of antigovernment uprisings that swept the Arab world, Khadafy unleashed a vicious crackdown on Libyans who rose up against him.
Just days after the uprising against him began, Khadafy delivered one of his trademark rants on Feb. 22 from his Tripoli compound, which was bombed by US airstrikes in the 1980s and was left unrepaired as an anti-American display.
Pounding a lectern near a sculpture of a golden fist crushing a US warplane, he vowed to hunt down protesters “inch by inch, room by room, home by home, alleyway by alleyway.’’
In March, the United Nations authorized a no-fly zone for Libya and NATO airstrikes to prevent Khadafy from attacking his own protesting people.
Khadafy was born in 1942 in the central Libyan desert, the son of a Bedouin father who was once jailed for opposing Libya’s Italian colonialists.
In 1969, as a 27-year-old captain, he emerged as leader of a group of officers who overthrew King Idris’s monarchy.
During the 1970s, Khadafy closed a US air base and expelled about 20,000 Italians in retaliation for the 1911-41 occupation. He nationalized businesses. And he proclaimed a “popular revolution’’ and began imposing “peoples’ committees’’ as local levels of government, topped by a “Peoples’ Congress.’’
He led a state without a constitution, using his own idiosyncratic book of political philosophy - the “Green Book.’’ He took the military’s highest rank, colonel, when he came to power. and called himself the “Brother Leader’’ of the revolution.
“He aspired to create an ideal state,’’ said North African analyst Saad Djebbar of Cambridge University. “He ended up without any components of a normal state.’’
Khadafy did spend oil revenue on building schools, hospitals, irrigation systems, and housing on a scale his Mediterranean nation had never seen.
But although Libya was producing almost 1.6 million barrels of crude per day before the civil war, about a third of its roughly 6 million people remain in poverty.