U.S. Congress members welcomed to former pariah state of Libya
TRIPOLI, Libya -- The sight of the white jet taxiing down the tarmac Sunday -- the first U.S. military plane to touch down in Tripoli since 1969 -- left no doubt that a pariah state was coming in from the cold after renouncing its nuclear weapons program.
In a landmark visit, seven U.S. Congress members emerged from the U.S. Navy jet and heaped praise on the recent reforms of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who former President Ronald Reagan once called a barbarian.
"We're very excited about opening this new chapter in our relations," said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who stepped off the plane wearing a pin with the American and Libyan flags.
"I'd say the Libyan leader has taken the first step," Weldon said, adding: "Once our governments have completed the process of formal relations, there is no limit to what we can accomplish together."
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Texas Democrat, put it more simply: "We want to be friends."
The U.S. military aircraft was the first to touch down in Tripoli since 1969, when Gadhafi seized power.
In the interim, American warplanes have flown only overhead, notably in 1986 when they launched attacks that killed 37 people, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter, in retaliation for the bombing of a German disco that killed a U.S. soldier and a Turkish woman.
The United States imposed sanctions that year, accusing Libya of supporting terrorist groups. Ten years later, America said it would penalize the U.S. partners of European companies that did significant business in Libya and Iran.
"I don't think we can change history, but we also understand we can move together toward a new beginning," Weldon said.
Over the last year Gadhafi has made a startling turnaround. He admitted his country's involvement in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the victims' families.
He also admitted he had tried to develop weapons of mass destruction -- including a nuclear bomb -- and invited U.N., American and British teams to inspect his weapons programs and dismantle them.
Some have suggested that Libya didn't want to face the kind of war that drove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq last year. But diplomats say Libya appears to have made a firm decision to remake itself in 2002, before the United States launched its war on Iraq.
Gadhafi's decisions followed months of secret negotiations with the United States and Britain.
After Libya admitted in September its involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, the U.N. Security Council voted to lift its sanctions. The United States is waiting for Gadhafi to follow through on the rest of his pledges before doing the same.
The lawmakers indicated that barring any changes of heart, diplomatic ties soon could be restored.
"We are here to let the leaders of Libya know that if they continue the steps they are taking, that's a very real likelihood," Weldon said.
Libya is also counting on a restoration of economic ties. The sanctions have cost Libya more than $30 billion in lost business. Investment is especially needed for an oil industry that once made the North African country of about 5 million people a regional power.
The Congressional delegation was to stay in Libya until Monday afternoon. Members hoped to visit sites related to Libya's weapons of mass destruction, which U.S. and British experts were preparing to start dismantling with Gadhafi's blessing, and to meet with Gadhafi.
Weldon said their hosts would determine the agenda, and Libyan officials gave no details of their plans.
At the airport, the delegation was received by a senior local official, Abdul-Latif al-Dali, secretary of the Tripoli People's Congress, who chatted with Weldon about the overcast weather as they made their way to the airport lounge.
Al-Dali sat stiffly as the Americans spoke, but told the delegation: "We are very happy that the representatives of the American people have come."
In Tripoli's central market, many shoppers and shopkeepers echoed his words.
"They're very welcome here," said Abdul Hakim Bizanti, 45. "Libya's opening up. It's good for us, for everybody."
The delegation's arrival came on the heels of that of another American lawmaker. Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, landed Saturday in the first visit by an elected U.S. official in 38 years.
Asked if he felt upstaged by the separate Lantos visit, Weldon said: "I don't know why he did it. I would question why you spend $30,000 to fly across, when you could have flown in on a military plane that had 100 empty seats.
"He's got to answer to the taxpayers on why he spent that money," he said.
In addition to Weldon and Ortiz, the delegation includes Democratic Party Representatives Steve Israel of New York and Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, as well as Republicans Candice Miller of Michigan, Mark Souder of Indiana and Darrell Issa of California.
Niko Price is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press