Congress members tour nuclear reactor, meet Libyan leader

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

TRIPOLI, Libya -- A Republican congressman led a delegation of Americans into uncharted territory Monday: a meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and a tour of a Libyan nuclear reactor.

The extraordinary meeting -- in a tent beside the ruins of Gadhafi's house, bombed by U.S. warplanes -- is a hallmark of improving relations between the United States and Libya after decades of animosity.

"It was an extremely positive two hours," said the delegation's leader, Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania. "We discussed the hope that we will achieve normal relations soon."

While lawmakers said there was little discussion of remaining points of contention between the countries -- Libya's policy toward Israel, for example -- they were impressed with Gadhafi.

"He came across as a very sincere man," said Rep. Solomon Ortiz, a Texas Democrat. "My throat gave up and he went and got me some medicine."

The meeting took place in a white tent emblazoned with green palm trees and circular designs, erected beside the wreckage of Gadhafi's house, destroyed by U.S. bombs in 1986.

The two nations have come a long way since then. In recent months, Gadhafi has renounced his support for terrorist organizations and invited U.S., British and U.N. experts to dismantle his previously secret programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The lawmakers said they were convinced Gadhafi was serious about his new place in the world, and wanted desperately to come back in from the cold after decades of U.S. and U.N. sanctions imposed for his support of terrorists took a toll on his country's oil wealth and regional power.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said Gadhafi "expressed his regret that a quarter-century has passed of isolation between our countries."

The meeting, Issa said, "is just the first step."

Gadhafi admitted last month that he tried to develop weapons of mass destruction -- including a nuclear bomb -- and U.N., American and British inspectors have been inspecting the facilities to determine how to dismantle them.

Donning white smocks and shoe coverings, the lawmakers reviewed the Tajura reactor just east of Tripoli, a 10-megawatt facility for scientific research built in 1980 with equipment imported from Russia.

Although the facility wasn't used for weapons development, scientists working on the nuclear weapons program presumably gained knowledge working at facilities like Tajura.

In moving closer to the United States, Libya is hoping to end the U.S. sanctions, in place since 1986, that have cost it more than $30 billion in lost business. Investment is especially needed for the oil industry.

The delegation -- which flew in Sunday aboard the first U.S. military plane to land in Libya since Gadhafi came to power in 1969 -- indicated the sanctions could be removed as soon as Gadhafi made good on his pledges.

"The leader is doing the right thing," said Weldon, who met with Gadhafi for 30 minutes after the two-hour meeting with the entire delegation.

Another American lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, is in Libya on a separate visit. He landed in Libya on Saturday in the first visit by an elected U.S. official in 38 years.

Lantos, the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, met for 90 minutes with Gadhafi before the other U.S. delegation arrived, and emerged saying the Bush administration should show "good faith" toward the North African leader.

In a telephone interview from the Netherlands on his way home, Lantos said he would recommend the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., urge the White House to lift a ban on travel to Libya as a first step to a new relationship.

"The conversation was extremely cordial," Lantos said. "He repeatedly emphasized this turning to peace and his hopes it will lead to a new relationship" with the United States.

In addition to Weldon, Ortiz and Issa, the delegation includes Louisiana Democrat Rodney Alexander and Republicans Candice Miller of Michigan, Mark Souder of Indiana and Elton Gallegly of California.

Democrat Steve Israel of New York planned to join the delegation in Kuwait, for which the Americans left later Monday en route to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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