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Gadhafi: An Iron-Fisted, Often-Brutal Leader

MELISSA BLOCK, host: So we've looked ahead to Libya's uncertain future. Now, NPR's Jackie Northam gives us this look back at Moammar Gadhafi's long and tumultuous political career.

JACKIE NORTHAM: During his 42 years of rule, Moammar Gadhafi reinvented his image many times - from revolutionary, Arab nationalist, freedom fighter and self-styled leader of Africa. Gadhafi seized power in September 1969 after a nearly bloodless coup overthrowing the then King Idris.

Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth and the author of the book, "Modern Libya," says back then, Gadhafi was a slim, handsome and austere young military officer who already had an outside sense of himself.

DIRK VANDEWALLE: From the very beginning, there was a sense that he really would be a young kind of Arab nationalist who would renew the sense of grandeur that the Arabs had had in the past.

NORTHAM: Gadhafi came from humble beginnings. He was born in a tent in 1942 in the northeastern town of Sirte. Despite that, Ambassador David Mack who first met Gadhafi after he seized power, says he received an unusual degree of education for a Libyan of that time, technical and military training along with a master's degree in history.

DAVID MACK: He is very intelligent. I would say one of the highest IQ people I've ever talked to. But there was always a feeling that he was not emotionally as stable.

NORTHAM: That erratic behavior was also reflected in Gadhafi's style of government. In the mid-1970s, Gadhafi published his manifesto known as "The Green Book." It was a written account of Gadhafi's vision for Libya, which Ambassador Mack says was quite jumbled.

MACK: I would describe it as being a mixture of utopian socialism, Arab nationalism, tribal and Islamic values and the idea of Islamic egalitarianism along with anti-imperialism and a fair amount of xenophobia. And all these things kind of wrapped up in a strange mixture.

NORTHAM: Libya's oil reserves supplied Gadhafi's government with an enormous cash flow. George Tremlett, the author of the book "Gadaffi: The Desert Mystic," says much of that money went into the pocket of Gadhafi's inner circle. But Tremlett says the Libyan leader used some of the petrol dollars to good use, such as constructing the world's largest drinking water pipeline, which brings millions of gallons of water from beneath the Sahara to Libyans living along the Mediterranean Coast.

GEORGE TREMLETT: They have a very good water supply. And they now have crops, where before they didn't have crops. They now have an agriculture, where before they didn't have an agriculture.

NORTHAM: But Tremlett says, for the most part, the people of Libya suffered rather than prospered. And over time, Gadhafi's regime became increasingly repressive. Political opposition was seen as treason punishable by death. Gadhafi's harsh tactics went beyond Libya's borders. During the late 1970s and '80s, Gadhafi's government was linked to several terrorist attacks and accused of supporting militant groups in Europe and elsewhere.

In the early April 1986, a bomb ripped through a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. service personnel. Two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman were killed. Shortly after, the U.S. struck back. President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation.


President RONALD REAGAN: At seven o'clock this evening, Eastern time, air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities, and military assets that support Moammar Gadhafi's subversive activities.

NORTHAM: Nearly 100 people were killed in U.S. attacks on several Libyan installations. Two years later, Gadhafi was seen to be behind another terrorist attack.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A New York bound Pan Am 747, flying from London's Heathrow Airport crashed in the village of Lockerbie in southern Scotland about an hour after takeoff. There were 258 on board Flight 103 and a Royal Air Force official coordinating rescue effort says all perished.

NORTHAM: With the downing of Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Libya became an international pariah and remained so for nearly a decade. But then, Gadhafi began to remake his image again. By 2003, Gadhafi had agreed to make reparations for the families of victims of Pan Am 103. And he agreed to renounce his unconventional weapons program. Despite that, Ambassador Mack says Gadhafi continue to act erratically.

MACK: I'm afraid he got increasingly set in his ways, increasingly unwilling to tolerate any views other than his own. And there may be, in fact, signs of dementia.

NORTHAM: When this year's uprising spread from Tunisia and Egypt into Libya, Gadhafi tried to brutally crush the protestors. Several times he appeared on television defiantly refusing to step down.

MOAMMAR GADHAFI: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: Dartmouth Professor Vandewalle says no matter how many times Gadhafi tried to remake himself over the years, he was always at heart a ruthless leader.

VANDEWALLE: What we saw those last days was really, you know, Gadhafi harking back to the kind of language that he had used ever since he came to power - very defiant, being willing to fight to the last bullet. And so, in the end, he has the true Gadhafi who was revealed again.

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News.


ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.