Rice Primed for Historic Libya Visit

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LISBON, Portugal - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she's excited about a landmark trip she will make to Libya on Friday, becoming the highest-ranking American official to visit the North African country in more than a half-century.

"I am very much looking forward to it," she said here before leaving for Tripoli, where she will meet and shake hands with Moammar Gadhafi and close a nearly three-decade era of bitter animosity between the United States and Libya.

"It is a historic moment and it is one that has come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged, Americans in particular for whom I am very concerned," Rice told a news conference in Lisbon.

"It is also the case that this comes out of a historic decision that Libya made to give up weapons of mass destruction and renounce terrorism," she said. "Libya," she added, "is a place that is changing and I want to discuss how that change is taking place."

The visit is part of a dramatic turnaround in U.S. relations with Libya that hit their low point in the 1980s with Libyan-linked terrorist attacks and American retaliation. At one point, former President Ronald Reagan called Gadhafi a "mad dog."

As the first secretary of state to visit the former pariah, oil-rich country in more than a half-century, Rice's visit will represent a foreign policy success for a Bush administration badly in need of one in its final months.

Libya has agreed to pay compensation to the families of victims of the 1998 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and those of a 1986 attack on a disco in Berlin, which prompted President Reagan to order retaliatory airstrikes on Libyan targets. The money is not yet all there, but U.S. officials say they are confident it will be paid soon.

Yet relations between the countries — once marked by violence and insults — still will face strains on a number of fronts, ranging from human rights to the final resolution of legal claims from the terror bombings.

Despite Gadhafi's 2003 decision to abandon nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, renounce terrorism and then begin to compensate victims, not all questions have been settled.

Even as Rice prepared for her face-to-face meeting with Gadhafi, a fund set up last month to compensate U.S. and Libyan victims of those bombings remained empty.

A leading Libyan reformer, Fathi al-Jhami, whose case has been championed by the Bush administration and by Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, remained in detention, where he has been near continuously since 2002. Rights groups say hundreds of other political prisoners are still being held.

Libya, now an elected member of the U.N. Security Council, has voted with the United States on issues related to Iran's nuclear program and has helped with the Darfur crisis. But its support on other key issues, notably the Middle East peace process, is far from clear.

Among the biggest question marks is the often unpredictable behavior of Libya's mercurial supreme leader, the sunglasses-clad Gadhafi, who has cultivated images as both an Arab potentate and African monarch since taking power in a 1969 coup.

U.S. officials say they expect Rice may see Gadhafi in a tent, his favored location for high-level meetings, surrounded by an all-female bodyguard corps, but that plans could change. By all accounts it will be a meeting to remember.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera television last year, Gadhafi spoke of Rice in most unusual terms, calling her "Leezza" and suggesting that she actually runs the Arab world with which he has had severe differences in the past.

"I support my darling black African woman," he said. "I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders ... Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. ... I love her very much. I admire her, and I'm proud of her, because she's a black woman of African origin."

Rice will be the first secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953 and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that in that period, "we've had a man land on the moon, the Internet, the Berlin Wall fall, and we've had 10 U.S. presidents."

"It's a historic stop," he said.

Rice has yet to discuss her expectations for her talks with Gadhafi, but U.S. interests include combatting terrorism in North Africa — where al-Qaida offshoots have launched attacks in Algeria and Morocco, two countries Rice also will visit on her tour this week — and perhaps most importantly settling the claims for the Lockerbie and La Belle bombings.

U.S. officials had hoped that Libya would have deposited hundreds of millions of dollars into the compensation fund by the time Rice arrived. But the State Department said Thursday that the account remained empty.

Some of the families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing have raised vehement objections to Rice meeting with Gadhafi, whom they consider to be unrepentant for the deaths of the 280 people, including 180 Americans, who died in the attack.

The Bush administration has expressed sympathy with the families but said it is time to move ahead with Libya, which is the first, and thus far only, country designated by the State Department to be a "state sponsor of terrorism" to be removed from that list by its own actions.

Rice's visit comes amid a surge in interest from U.S. companies, particularly in the energy sector, to do business in Libya, where European companies have had much greater access in recent years. Libya's proven oil reserves are the ninth largest in the world, close to 39 billion barrels, and vast areas remain unexplored for new deposits.