Scottish rescue workers and crash investigators search the area around the cockpit of Pan Am flight 103 in a farmer's field east of Lockerbie, Scotland, December 23, 1988.
Greg Bos / Reuters

LIBYA'S GAMBLE

Colonel Qaddafi's emissary, Youssef Debri, met me in Cairo. He was in Egypt exploring the ramifications of Libya's surrendering two of its citizens to stand trial for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. In formal talks in New York, a U.N. official had already managed to narrow the gap between Libya's concerns and the British-American proposal for a trial in the Netherlands, but important differences remained. Now Debri was in Cairo informally, to clarify Washington's terms with a well-connected, retired American diplomat, in the hope of ending Qaddafi's equivocation.

An intimate of Qaddafi since their student days at military college, Debri had contacted me some weeks before to propose that I visit Libya. Cut off from the world by the U.N. embargo over Lockerbie, Libya, he said, had grown weary of its isolation. Under the embargo's terms, it could sell oil -- its only export -- to European customers, so it had money for food and medicines. But the other barriers to trade and transportation were wearing it down. Few businessmen and almost no journalists came to call. Debri's message was that Libya, anxious for a new start, wanted to put Lockerbie behind it. In Libya, he assured me, I would be free to go where I liked and to see whomever I wanted, including Qaddafi himself.

Having decided on the journey, I went to the State Department for a briefing. Officials there acknowledged that they knew little about what was going on in Libya. In 1986, two years before Lockerbie, President Reagan broke off relations with Libya and imposed economic sanctions in response to a series of terrorist incidents. In the past few years, the officials said, Libya had committed no terrorist acts. Unlike Iraq, it posed no strategic threat. But because of Lockerbie, the United States still shunned Qaddafi and kept Libya on its list of terrorist states.

In 1991, a U.S. grand jury indicted two Libyans -- Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, ex-manager of the Libyan Arab Airlines office in Malta, and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a high-level intelligence official -- for the Lockerbie bombing. A British court did the same. In 1992, the U.N. Security Council imposed its own sanctions, including a flight ban that effectively closed Libya's airports. Tripoli, in response, proposed trying the two suspects in a neutral country, but Washington and London would have none of it. Then, last August, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced that she would "call the Libyan government's bluff" and offered a trial by a Scottish court seated in the Netherlands. Libya agreed in principle, but Qaddafi demanded more details.

Though the American embargo did not bar my visit (since it makes an exception for journalists), the U.N. sanctions kept me from flying to Libya directly. The conventional route to Tripoli, the capital, is through Djerba, a southern Tunisian town, where Debri said a car would meet me for the 250-mile overland leg. But while I was in Paris waiting to embark, he sent word that Qaddafi had dispatched him on the Cairo mission. At Debri's request, I flew to Cairo instead.

The change of itinerary permitted me, in the next few days, to discuss Libya in Paris and Cairo. The two capitals have an interest similar to Washington's, since Libya has been implicated in the loss of both French and Egyptian airliners. France, in fact, was preparing at that very moment to try six Libyans in absentia for the bombing of a French uta plane over Niger in 1989, at a cost of 171 lives. But neither country has severed ties with Libya, and policymakers in both maintained that Libya was now serious about wanting to return to the world community.

ON THE ROAD

With Debri, I set off for Tripoli -- more than 2,000 miles from Cairo. Most of a day passed just reaching Libya's frontier, although it included a stop at El Alamein, where old British, German, and Italian tanks in a modest museum rekindled my boyhood fascination with Montgomery's 1942 victory. From there we followed the route of Rommel's retreat: along the coast to Matruh and Sidi Barrani in Egypt, then to Tobruk, Darnah, Benghazi, and Tripoli in Libya.

Along the coast road -- first built by Mussolini, recently reconstructed by German engineers -- rusty Toyota pickups were practically the only traffic. Power lines and satellite dishes shadowed the route. At night, TV sets glimmered eerily through open windows in small villages that whirred by. The road signs were in Arabic alone; after the revolution, Qaddafi banned -- along with alcohol -- all signs using the Latin alphabet. His full-color portrait in assorted heroic poses appeared intermittently at crossroads and traffic circles, but compared to Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Hafiz al-Asad in Syria, Qaddafi was scarcely visible.

Inside Libya, we hit a checkpoint every 30 or 40 miles, where one or two security men waved our car through. I had read reports -- hotly denied by the government -- that Islamic assassins attacked Qaddafi last June on this very road. Whether it was true or not, Libya seemed quite casual about security.

Tobruk, our first stopover, is an unattractive town, its streets rutted and unswept, its edges cluttered with ugly four-story apartment blocks. But there was plenty of food in the shops, and in the schoolyards, wearing neat blue uniforms, were healthy-looking children. A few women wore veils, but most had on Western dress, and many displayed uncovered hair.

Next came Benghazi, which impressed me with its energy. Libya's second-largest city had seemed at death's door a decade ago, with an almost-exhausted, brackish water supply. But the Man-Made River, a project begun with American engineers in the 1970s, now pumps in water through 14-foot pipes from huge desert aquifers 600 miles to the south. Budgeted at $25 billion, the project aims to transform the coastal plain, where most Libyans live, into fertile fields and vibrant cities. Some Western critics claim Libya would have done better to invest in less expensive seaside desalination plants. But Libyan officials boast of the project's cost-effectiveness, and citizens speak of it with pride as their best hope for a prosperous future.

In Benghazi, I asked Youssef (we were now using first names) to introduce me to some of his countrymen. To my surprise, at about midnight, six doctors and professors from the university showed up at the hotel. All well dressed, they had been trained in America or Britain and spoke excellent English. The invitation, they said, offered them a rare opportunity to meet an American. Youssef ordered coffee and cookies for everyone, then withdrew so that we could speak privately. We continued talking until nearly two o'clock in the morning.

Americans, they all agreed, dismiss Libya as a country of terrorists and paupers. "There are many changes going on here," one said, "and you won't take the trouble to understand them." They said that Libya -- ruled in turn by Turks, Italians, and British -- still suffered from the legacy of colonialism but was struggling resolutely toward self-government.

Qaddafi's Green Book, his manual on Libya's future, proposes establishing a system of people's congresses that he claims reflect the popular will more accurately than Western-style democracy. My visitors said that such popular congresses, in which all Libyans participate, do indeed make policy. Meetings are held at regular intervals in towns and villages and annually at the national level. While acknowledging flaws in the system, they called it a legitimate exercise in democracy and spoke of it with affection.

"You think Qaddafi makes all the decisions, but the people actually make them," one visitor insisted. "We respect him as the leader of our revolution. He brought us schools and roads and clinics. He changed the face of our country. He commands attention. But Qaddafi is not a dictator, like Saddam Hussein. It is the congresses that rule, often rejecting his ideas. They routinely criticize government actions. Our practice, we know, is not up to our theory, but we get better each year."

My visitors told me that every Libyan was now discussing the Lockerbie proposal. Most, they said, considered it a humiliation, but Libya was under heavy international pressure to accept it, particularly from the Arab League. As early as 1992, the General People's Congress, the highest legislative organ, passed a resolution to hand over the suspects to a "fair and just" tribunal. My visitors said they endorsed the resolution, confident -- since Libya does not engage in terrorism -- that the suspects would be found innocent. But innocent or not, they said, Libya is too weak to submit to the embargo any longer.

Our next stopover was Sirte, chosen by Qaddafi as Libya's new capital. Money was clearly pouring in. Some state offices had already relocated to temporary quarters in the city, and handsome housing was going up. A huge, modern government complex, the work of Italian builders, was nearly completed and is to house the General People's Congress and most ministries.

Qaddafi, who talks of bringing government closer to the people, dislikes Tripoli for its vestiges of Italian colonialism and chose Sirte for its centrality. Most important, Sirte is also Qaddafi's home turf. He was born south of the city in 1942, in the desert where his father, a Bedouin tribesman, herded sheep and goats. Libyans say the desert surrounding Sirte remains in Qaddafi's blood.

Biographers agree that as a youth Qaddafi was puritanical, studious, charismatic, religious -- and nationalistic. Even in high school, he agitated to drive out the British forces that had supported Libya's monarchical regime since the end of World War II. Nearby wars -- the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956, Algeria's 1956-62 struggle for independence, the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 -- all sharpened his anti-imperial disposition.

Young Qaddafi's hero was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fiery Egyptian president who preached a heady, aggressive Arab nationalism. As a junior officer, Qaddafi, emulating Nasser, organized a band of colleagues to overthrow the shaky King Idris and succeeded in doing so in 1969. Although he later absorbed some democratic and socialist notions, a hatred of imperialism remains the root of his ideology and the driving force of his regime. Independence was a luxury Libya was able to afford: billions of dollars in oil revenues arrived early on to assure the revolution's financial freedom. One of Qaddafi's first acts as ruler of Libya was to demand the departure not just of the British but also of the Americans, who ran a huge air base outside Tripoli. Although his relations with Washington would worsen later, they were edgy from the very start.

TEA IN THE SAHARA

Around eleven o'clock on the morning after our arrival in Sirte, Youssef and I set out, heading south, to see Qaddafi. After a half-hour ride across the desert, we were met by a police escort, which led us to an almost indiscernible dirt track that ran off the paved road. A bumpy mile or so later, we reached the gate of a chainlink fence, where three or four limousines sat. Parking our car among them, we piled into a Land Rover, which bucked us over rock and sand a half-hour deeper into the desert. Finally, we reached an encampment of large tents and modern trailers near which grazed a herd of some 200 camels. No armed guards seemed to be anywhere in view.

I knew, of course, that Qaddafi often receives visitors in his tent. Critics call it a conceit; admirers say he is just being true to himself. The tent to which I was first directed was ballroom-size, its sides open to admit the breeze. Seated next to three Africans in native robes, I was offered tea. The Africans made a brief call on Qaddafi, after which Youssef escorted me to Qaddafi's tent, pitched nearby, and left me there.

Save for a few simple chairs and a table, the tent was bare. Its camel-skin roof and sides were weathered; the rugs covering the sand floor were ordinary. Qaddafi sat alone, except for an interpreter. A beige turban half-concealed his bushy hair. He wore a thin, tattered Bedouin robe, embroidered at the edges, over a much-laundered print sport shirt and khaki pants. His furrowed face was clean-shaven, his eyes covered by dark glasses. Libyans say they love Qaddafi for the austere life he leads. The setting seemed to vindicate this reputation.

Leaning on a metal crutch, Qaddafi rose to shake my hand. Foreign press reports had it that he was nursing a wound from the assassination attempt near Tobruk; the official line claimed injury in a household accident. I was aware of Qaddafi's reputation for impulsiveness and hyperbole. But since I had been invited to Libya to report on its effort to return to the world community, I expected him to indulge me with soft and soothing words. I could not have been more wrong.

I began the interview by asking whether the view that Libya had embarked on a new course was correct. Qaddafi did not turn to me to answer. Through the open flaps of the tent, he fixed his eyes on the horizon. His lips seemed barely to move. He spoke in a controlled monotone, though from time to time emotion quickened its pace.

"America," he said, "unfortunately treats us as if the world was the way it used to be. Americans accept that changes have taken place since the end of communism, but not in their treatment of Libya. So in the end, they take a racist and fanatical position, similar to the way Hitler treated the Jews. We feel that America is much like Hitler. We have no explanation for this, except that it is a religious, fanatical, racist position. Some analysts call this a new colonialism. But colonialism is colonialism, and it is always unjust. It is how we were treated by the Italians, Algeria by the French, India by the British. This is imperialism, and we seem to be entering a new imperialist era.

"The cause of our conflict with America is not that we attacked them. We have never attacked an American target. America started the aggression against us right here in the Gulf of Sirte. When we defended ourselves, they attacked us in these very tents. We were bombed by missiles in our own territorial waters. In 1986 our own children were killed. No one can bring my daughter back to me. Then Lockerbie came along. Now we'd like this chain of events to be over. But America doesn't want to turn the page. We shall, however, show courage and be patient, and America will be the loser."

The events about which Qaddafi rambled date back to 1981, when American jets shot down two Libyan planes in a dispute over the extent of Libya's territorial waters. In January 1986, President Reagan, responding to terrorist attacks in Rome and Vienna, blocked commerce with Libya and froze its American assets. A few weeks later, U.S. Navy planes bombed Sirte and destroyed four patrol boats in another dispute over territorial waters. In April, Reagan, blaming Libya for a bomb that killed two American soldiers in a Berlin nightclub, attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, along with suspected terrorist camps in the desert. Among the 37 civilians reported killed was Qaddafi's adopted infant daughter, Hana'a. Libyans say the child's death haunts him still.

When I asked Qaddafi if Libya was responsible for the many terrorist incidents of which it was accused in the 1980s, he issued no denial. "These incidents that you mention belong to the past," he said. "Once Abu Amar [Yasir Arafat] was wanted. Now he enters the White House with all the trappings, the music, the red carpet treatment." I thought I detected a note of envy in his voice. "They say Libya is a terrorist country. But now that is illogical, not reasonable. All these things are of the past, an era that is over. The bombing of the French plane took place during a time of war in the region -- Libya, Chad, France. It was similar to America's downing of the Iranian plane in the Gulf. The Israelis shot down a Libyan aircraft over the Sinai. The Soviet Union shot down a Korean airplane. It was a time of war. So how come you forgot all about that and you just mention the charges against Libya? There is no explanation for that. We go back to the racist, fanatical complexes of America."

When I suggested to Qaddafi that the downing of the other airliners might have been the result of miscommunications, he broke into derisive laughter. But I persisted, asking whether the UTA and Lockerbie bombings were not deliberate efforts to kill.

"Look at your logic, the American logic. Those who use missiles or fighter planes and rockets are legitimate. Those who use explosives or small bombs are considered terrorists. If we use the same logic, Usama bin Ladin will use cruise missiles, the same weapon used by America, and he will not be accused of being a terrorist. Whether we were responsible for bringing down the French plane will be decided by a French court. We don't say anything about it. The same is true of Lockerbie. I can't answer as to whether Libya was responsible. Let's let the court decide. Libya has not been convicted of any terrorist act up to this moment. If they accuse us, they have to prove their charges."

Was terrorism, I asked, ever in Libya's national interest?

"Why do you ask me that? Why don't you ask why it is in America's interest to attack us in the Gulf of Sirte, why it is in America's interest to kill our children? Is it so unusual for Libya to have a reaction when these things happen? Who is being unfair? We have no interest in being hostile to America. We would be fools to initiate a confrontation with America. But when you face aggression, you have to defend yourself, no matter how small you are. We want a reconciliation with America, but America doesn't want a reconciliation with us."

Is Libya, I asked, ready to turn over the two Lockerbie suspects for trial? His answer, I thought, contained a clue to his procrastination in resolving the problem.

"We have agreed that a trial should take place. Now let us sit down and decide how it can be put into practice. I want to find out the truth about Lockerbie myself. After that, the story will be finished. I am not so concerned about whether the two Libyans are convicted or not. What is important is that the problem come to an end. Twice the number of Libyans have died from the embargo than were killed at Lockerbie. Whether this one or that is guilty or not is the business of the lawyers and the courts. What matters is that once the trial starts, sanctions will be over against Libya. The embargo will be lifted."

He went on, pessimistically.

"Naturally, normal relations between our two countries should be restored. But I am sure that because of America's psychological complexes and imperialist designs, such normal relations will not be restored, even if the Lockerbie business is over. America wants to occupy the Gulf of Sirte and the north of Africa. It wants to hand over Egypt and Syria to Israel, so that a Greater Israel is established.

"We have no problems with the West generally. Libya has good relations with Europe. We have European embassies and companies here. But America is different. We are not enemies of the American people. Millions of Arabs, millions of Muslims, millions of Africans are Americans these days. How could we be their enemy? Only imperialist policies prevent our working together. Libya is a victim of American terrorism."

By now Qaddafi was signaling impatience, but before ending our talk I asked about the workings of his government. He pointed out that he holds no official position. Called simply "the Leader," he is not, technically, the head of state. The ministers report to the people's congresses, not to him, and diplomats do not present him their credentials. Western diplomats say he probably has a veto over official acts and that certain security agencies still report to him. Yet few Libya-watchers pretend to understand his precise role.

"I don't rule at all," Qaddafi insisted. "For anyone to say otherwise is baseless. My powers are moral. The people hold me in esteem for my character and for leading a revolution that rescued them from colonial rule. But it is the people who rule."

Indeed, my visit forced me to acknowledge that, contrary to conventional Western belief, Libya is no simple autocracy. Authority is not centralized but diffuse. The people take pride in the power they wield over their destiny. In recent years, the secret police have almost vanished from daily life. Qaddafi told me that outsiders who call him a dictator infuriate him and insult Libyans by implying that they do not govern themselves.

As I rose to leave, Qaddafi said to me in halting English, "I hope you will publish everything, that you will not delete anything." I have, save for repetitions. But my answer, it occurred to me, might have been that if Libya hoped to return to the world community, it would be better served by my not publishing any of it. Youssef, entering the tent, heard me muttering as I left. He still had to report on his meetings in Cairo and would urge Qaddafi to be reasonable about Washington's terms. My reaction to the interview clearly upset him.

I was cautiously sipping camel milk in the waiting-tent a few minutes later when Youssef returned. In an urgent tone he reported, "The Leader wants me to remind you that he was not talking officially and that he was not stating policy. He asks you to remember that he is a private person and was speaking from his heart on what he feels. He wants you to see the foreign minister for the government's position on Lockerbie."

OTHER VOICES

I met Foreign Minister Omar Mustafa Muntasser late that afternoon in his temporary headquarters, a tiny office in a shopping center. Round-faced and bald, smoking a cigar, he spoke with the precision and urbanity one would expect of a seasoned diplomat. Unlike Qaddafi, his manner was calm, his voice low, his style reasonable, and he listened with some bemusement to my account of the meeting with the colonel. Qaddafi, he said, was a revolutionary, while he himself was a bureaucrat -- a contrast he did not intend as criticism. Still, he made clear that his approach to Lockerbie -- the official position -- was very different from what I had heard in the tent.

Muntasser spoke with nostalgia of America's ties to Libya in an earlier day. After World War II, America was extremely popular, he said, and might even have established a protectorate in Italy's wake but for a Soviet U.N. veto. In the 1970s and early 1980s, U.S.-Libyan trade totaled more than $4 billion annually. American companies, he said, ran Libya's oil fields, designed the Man-Made River, and built Libya's major power stations. Hundreds of Libyan students attended American universities.

Reagan, Muntasser said, must have held a grudge against Libya -- Qaddafi once mocked him as a "failed actor," he recalled -- but Clinton seemed to be different. Several times Muntasser said that Libya wanted to restore normal relations with America, though on conditions of equality.

As for Lockerbie, Muntasser said that he endorsed an open trial in the Netherlands and was confident that a Scottish court would be fair. It will not be proven, he said, that Libya committed the bombing "as national policy." He went on to tell me that he was prime minister at the time of the UTA bombing and that it "was definitely not the policy of the Libyan government -- though anything was possible."

What Muntasser seemed to be conveying, deliberately or not, was that Libya had more than one center of authority. Several Libyans had talked to me about a "dirty tricks" department that, while not visible on organizational charts, acted with the Leader's authority. Its chief was said to be Abdallah al-Sanussi, Qaddafi's brother-in-law and close confidant, a vigorous opponent of a Lockerbie compromise. Sanussi is on the list of defendants in the upcoming UTA trial in France. Recently, Libyans have noticed that Sanussi has not been seen near the Leader. His low profile may be a Qaddafi ploy, they say. But if he has actually been banished from the inner circle, it might signal an official willingness to surrender the Lockerbie suspects.

After the meeting with Muntasser, Youssef and I left for Tripoli. After five more hours on the road, I checked into a room at the El-Khebir Hotel, which looked out on a parking lot, an expressway, and beyond that, the port glittering with ships. Only in the morning did I learn that the hotel had once been on the water -- until city planners created an expensive landfill that ruined the promenade where Italians had loved to stroll. The landfill was only one of many signs of Qaddafi's commitment to wiping out vestiges of the colonial past. Tripoli still boasts a fine Ottoman fort and a souk that evokes Istanbul's covered markets. But many of the old palazzi are gone, having been replaced by flashy skyscrapers and drab high-rises.

In Tripoli I met with Hammouda el-Aswad, head of the National Oil Corporation, the agency that supervises the production and sale of Libya's principal resource. Hammouda, as everyone calls him, is an engineer, about 50, schooled in Libya and Italy. A large man, exuding quiet competence, he offered me an insider's view of what the sanctions meant for the country.

"Libya's oil industry is American by nature," he said. "American companies were the first to explore and produce here, exporting oil to Europe and America. Most of our Libyan staff are American-trained in American know-how. All our production facilities came from America. In fact, we used to have offices in America to purchase equipment and keep an eye on our exports.

"But America's sanctions in 1986 ended all that. The Americans knew our equipment, and they placed every item on the sanctions list. Then, when the U.N. embargo was imposed in 1992, the problem became even more complicated because we couldn't buy on the open market. Some machinery has been smuggled in, but we've now used up all our stores. We've had to go to junkyards to recondition discarded parts, and we've even attempted to manufacture our own parts, but we haven't been successful.

"The government's long-term plan has been to shift resources into agriculture and industry, but the sanctions limit that, too. We used to get equipment from outside within a few days. Now it takes a year. Travel to the West used to take a few hours. Now, with no planes coming in or out, it's several days. We used to get American technical assistance and American investment, but no longer. Even seeds -- we just can't get what we need. So agriculture and industry have not made up for our losses in oil.

"Our OPEC quota is 1.4 million barrels a day, and we're down now to 1.1 million. We have 'standstill' agreements, reserving the rights of American companies to come back. Since they are way ahead of Europe in technology, especially in the enhancement of depleted fields, we need their help. So our objective is not just the lifting of the international embargo but the American embargo, too. With the price of oil so low, we need an economic boost. Libya currently has serious income problems."

THE TWO LIBYAS

Libyan society seems divided into two sectors, technocratic and tribal. Hammouda symbolizes the first, which, though far from dominant, is growing in influence. This sector aspires to have Libya become a modern country: industrial, open, free, prosperous. Qaddafi, not without ambivalence, represents the tribal sector: jealous of Libya's individuality, suspicious of outsiders, committed to customary ways, Arab rather than global in orientation. He even rules like a tribal chief, grounding his authority in tradition, if not divine right.

No doubt Qaddafi, as leader of the revolution, has contributed much to Libya. He ended colonial rule. He has devoted Libya's substantial wealth to building an impressive infrastructure: roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, a water distribution system. He has gone as far as any Arab leader in providing for popular participation in decision-making and in liberating women. He is perceived -- correctly, I believe -- as personally incorruptible. Yet it seems clear (though I never heard it from a Libyan) that, much like Cuba's Fidel Castro, he has stayed around too long.

I saw no sign during my visit, however, of a serious movement to bring Qaddafi down. The technocrats, though impatient, defer to him as a living legend. Islamic extremists -- mostly Libyans who fought in Afghanistan -- have committed a few violent acts in recent years, but they have failed to recruit a popular following and seem now to be in eclipse. Although little is known about what goes on inside the armed forces, I saw scant evidence of mutiny.

Nonetheless, I sensed that Qaddafi, though reluctantly, recognizes an imperative to change. If he renounces the role of international bad boy, it will be an acknowledgment that the world -- even the Arab world -- no longer tolerates the role. Whether he likes it or not, Qaddafi sees that most Libyans also want an end to the provocative policies that have made the country a pariah. A settlement on Lockerbie would be the harbinger of a new season in Libya's national life. In time, Qaddafi will almost certainly endorse it, though grudgingly.

Abdulati Alobidi, the under secretary for European affairs, is the Libyan official in charge of the day-to-day maneuvering over Lockerbie. Esteemed for his candor by Libya's diplomatic community, I met him in the foreign ministry -- one of the few surviving Italian mansions on the Tripoli seaside.

Alobidi told me that right after the Security Council voted for sanctions in 1992, Qaddafi established a high-level committee to reopen the channels of communication with Washington. Libya, he said, made repeated overtures to the United States, directly and through allies as diverse as Egypt, Morocco, Italy, and even South Africa's Nelson Mandela. But according to Alobidi, nothing worked.

Libya, he told me, has had more success with the United Kingdom. Although the British had long squabbled with Libya over its arms shipments to the ira and had cut diplomatic relations in 1984, the two countries maintained informal contacts. Libya, succumbing to British pressure, once stopped the shipments, but resumed them after American planes, launched from British bases, bombed the country in 1986. London persisted in its efforts to put an end to the shipments, however, and in 1995 told the United Nations that deliveries had stopped again. Soon afterward, the United Kingdom endorsed the plan for an international Lockerbie trial and pressured the United States to follow suit.

As of last November, when I talked with Alobidi, two points on the trial remained unresolved. The first concerned the site of incarceration in the event the suspects are found guilty. Washington and London have insisted on Scotland. Although Qaddafi still talked of imprisoning the men in Libya, the government seemed willing to accept a Dutch prison.

The second point had to do with the lifting of the sanctions. "Frankly, we don't trust the Americans," Alobidi told me. "Libya is still on the State Department list of terrorist sponsors, though Washington acknowledges that we have not been involved in terrorism for three or four years. We don't want to hear any new pretexts from them for continuing, or resuming, the sanctions.

"The U.N. resolution is tricky on this matter," said Alobidi. "It says that the sanctions will be 'suspended' when the secretary-general reports to the Security Council that the suspects have reached the Netherlands for the trial. It does not speak of the sanctions being abolished. What kind of pressures will the United States put on the secretary-general? Though our people are not dying like the Iraqis, we don't want this matter to drag on, like the Iraq sanctions. What we want is to get the Lockerbie problem behind us. It is the wish of the Leader and the people of Libya to normalize relations with the United States."

In fact, State Department officials say that while they have agreed to suspend the U.N. sanctions when the suspects reach the Hague, they will not lift the 1986 Reagan embargo. After Libya meets its responsibilities to the United Nations, the United States may be willing to open talks on its own sanctions, but it makes no promises. While ending the U.N. sanctions will restore Libya's access to the world's markets and airports, it will not satisfy Libya's need for aircraft and oil field equipment, which only the United States can provide.

On December 5, 1998, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with Qaddafi while traveling through the Arab world. Both Libyan and U.N. officials had expected a breakthrough. None materialized. Speaking afterward, Annan said, "we have made positive progress. We are on our way to resolving the issue." The State Department acknowledges that Libya's negotiations have been businesslike and serious, and it has largely refrained from criticizing the process. Without a compromise on incarceration or the U.S. sanctions, however, resolution will be unlikely.

In the meantime, the noose is tightening, seemingly with Qaddafi's acquiescence. Besides Lockerbie, two other pending court cases will help determine Libya's future. For a year now, Germany has had on trial five suspects for the Berlin nightclub bombing; a major witness and defendant is a Libyan who at the time of the bombing was accredited to Libya's embassy in East Germany. And in March, France will conduct its trial of six Libyans -- including Sanussi -- accused of the uta bombing. Much of the evidence against them was acquired by a French investigator authorized by the Libyans to work in Tripoli.

The prosecutors proclaim that only individuals will be on trial in all three cases. Yet it seems probable that, directly or indirectly, Libya itself will be implicated in the proceedings. Fanned by angry public opinion, the world is certain to react strongly to findings that Libya was involved in these murderous attacks.

Although all three are potentially embarrassing, the French trial may be the most troublesome for Libya. Qaddafi's brother-in-law, though in absentia, will be in the dock. If convicted, as seems likely, it will be hard not to infer Qaddafi's personal involvement. Qaddafi has suggested a willingness to compensate the victims, but this is unlikely to be enough. The United States, Britain, and France will all have great difficulty putting his acts of violence behind them to move on to friendly relations.

Libyans know they are taking a gamble. They have already placed their chips on two of the trials and seem close to putting them down on the third. They are betting that their prospects for resuming a place in the world are better if they dispose of the three cases, however painful the outcome, than if they continue to express defiance. But with Washington showing no sign of softening, it is not at all certain that the gamble will succeed.

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  • Milton Viorst is a veteran Middle East correspondent. His most recent book is In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam.
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