U.S., Libya move closer despite concerns

January 3, 2008 11:01:47 AM PST
Libya's remarkable transformation from U.S. foe to friend is almost complete.

Despite unresolved terrorism and human rights concerns, the United States took another step toward ending decades of hostility with the north African nation on Thursday as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks here with the Libyan foreign minister in the highest-level contact between the two countries in Washington in 35 years.

The visit of the minister, Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, to Rice's State Department offices caps years of improving ties that began in 2003 when Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi agreed to abandon his weapons of mass destruction programs, renounce terrorism and pay compensation to the families of victims of several attacks, including the infamous 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Those steps marked the beginning of the end for Libya's international pariah status, removing U.N. and U.S. sanctions, allowing it to sail without opposition into a seat on the U.N. Security Council last year and normalizing relations with the West.

But amid the improvements, U.S.-Libyan relations remain unsettled. Congress is holding up key elements of the rapprochement - money to open a new American embassy in Tripoli and a confirmation hearing for the new U.S. ambassador there - until Libya completes compensation payments for the downing of Pan Am flight 103 and a 1986 Berlin disco bombing.

Rice was to press Shalqam on the need for Libya to finish payments to the families of 270 Pan Am victims and those killed and wounded in the La Belle disco attack as well as improve its human rights record if it is to fully enjoy the benefits of U.S. friendship, the State Department said.

"Compensation for families and also the importance of the Libyan government moving toward basic human rights for all of its citizens" will be at the top of her agenda, spokesman Sean McCormack said.

A group of U.S. lawmakers, led by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Christopher Dodd, is demanding that compensation be completed before the normalization is finalized.

"Libya has a responsibility to fulfill its commitments to American victims of its terror and has failed to do so," Lautenberg said in a statement Thursday.

"While Libya's foreign minister meets with Secretary Rice, the victims of the Pan Am 103 and LaBelle bombings continue to be ignored," he said. "It is time for the Libyans to address these issues with the seriousness they deserve and for Libya to provide justice for all American victims of these attacks."

Already though, since the United States removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2005, U.S. businesses, notably in the energy sector, are flooding back into the country that former President Reagan once described as an outpost of "barbarism" and ordered bombed after the La Belle disco attack that killed two American servicemen.

McCormack said Rice, who wanted to visit Libya last year but was unable to arrange the trip, still intends to visit the country before the end of President Bush's term next January.

"She does intend to, she looks forward to going there," he said, adding that no dates had been arranged. "She'll go when she thinks the timing is right."

If and when she goes to Libya, Rice will be the first secretary of state to visit the country since John Foster Dulles in 1953.

Rice has seen Shalqam before on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, most recently last September, but her meeting with him Thursday is historic. The last time a Libyan foreign minister visited the State Department was in 1972.

In addition to his meeting with Rice, Shalqam will see acting Defense Secretary Gordon England at the Pentagon on Thursday. On Friday, he meets Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.