By Jeffrey Fleishman and David Lamb
Los Angeles Times
CAIRO — Deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was declared dead Thursday.
The 69-year-old former strongman was an eccentric junior military officer who seized power in a coup and, 42 years later, lost his country in a bloody revolt as rebels backed by NATO warplanes swept into his battered capital Tripoli.
Libya’s transitional prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, said Thursday Gadhafi had been killed, but there were conflicting accounts of how he died. One report indicated that he died after being found hiding in his hometown, Sirte, in what appeared to be a concrete drainage pipe. Another said he was in a convoy bombed by NATO warplanes.
The rebellion against Gadhafi was years in the making, but it burst forth in a wave of uprisings against autocrats and kings that swept North Africa and the Middle East early this year.
Often regarded as the quintessential strongman, Gadhafi underestimated the rage against him as protests in eastern Libya flared across the country. Rebels pushed toward Tripoli, the capital, from the east and west and battled his beleaguered army and band of mercenaries.
The leader’s vicious assaults on his own people — his forces fired antiaircraft guns at civilians and shot worshipers near mosques — stunned the world. Libya, an oil-rich country with a population of 6 million, descended into what he threatened would be “hell.” Much of the military and many Libyan diplomats and officials abandoned him as tens of thousands of people died.
As the revolt spread beyond six months, Gadhafi became increasingly cornered, especially as North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombardments of his military strengthened bands of poorly equipped and ill-trained rebels. He disappeared from public view several months before his death, releasing video speeches until finally, as rebels closed in, transmitting only audio messages from hiding. He was defiant and, at times, delusional as he both admonished and urged tribes and loyalists to rescue Tripoli even as opposition forces were celebrating in its streets.
“The tribes must march to Tripoli now to defend and purify it,” he told his countrymen. “How can you allow Tripoli to be burned?”
“Gadhafi’s biggest mistake was that he built his whole regime on pure fear,” said Omar Amer, a member of the Libyan Youth Movement, a protest group. “He totally abandoned civilizing Libya. He neglected education and development projects. He left the majority of his people in the dark ages and built his might on fear through torturing and killing political dissidents in public.”
Gadhafi cast a curious shadow across North Africa and the Middle East, veering from political philosopher to terrorist plotter to the opportunistic leader of a country whose annual oil revenue ran about $50 billion a year. He was as idiosyncratic as he was inscrutable, a man who for four decades instigated international mischief and sparked anger at home, especially with his failed national vision and a family that seemed drawn from a reality television series.
He exasperated as much as he enthralled. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat once said that Gadhafi was “either 100 percent crazy or possessed of the devil.” President Ronald Reagan called him “the mad dog of the Middle East.” When Gadahfi showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba in 1984, Bourguiba simply said he was sick and went to bed, refusing to receive him.
His politics were a strange blend of nationalism, pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism and a system known as jamahiriya, or a “republic ruled by the masses.” He was known by many names, including Colonel and Brother Leader. But his attempts at economic and political reform failed as the government became increasingly decentralized and the country was largely run by local “revolutionary” committees that were inept and corrupt.
The son of a Bedouin farmer, Gadhafi dressed in flowing robes, desert garb and military uniforms bedecked with regalia. With his trademark sunglasses and his swagger, be became an icon of Arab power, a leader who pitched a tent in his travels around the world while admonishing what he regarded as an imperialistic West. He funded guerrilla armies and watched his onetime dream of an Islamic empire evaporate.
Gadhafi was a 27-year-old captain when he led a 1969 coup against Libya’s pro-West monarchy. Links to terrorism over the years, including an attack on a Berlin disco frequented by U.S. soldiers, prompted Reagan to bomb Libya in 1986. Two years later, Tripoli was implicated in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi, an alleged Libyan intelligence officer, was convicted in 2001.
Gadhafi agreed to pay nearly $3 billion in compensation to families of the airline bombing victims. Megrahi was released from prison in 2009 for medical reasons, drawing criticism in Britain that a deal with Gadhafi had been struck to protect European businesses and trade.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 startled Gadhafi. Worrying that his own regime could be in jeopardy, he denounced weapons of mass destruction and offered to open his nuclear program to international inspectors. The move helped ease economic sanctions against Libya, and put Gadhafi in the spotlight as leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Tripoli in 2004.
“It was strange given the history to come here and do this and of course I am conscious of the pain that people have suffered as a result of terrorist actions in the past,” Blair said of his meeting with Gadhafi. “But the world is changing and we have got to do everything we possibly can to tackle the security threat that faces us.”
President George W. Bush announced the gradual restoring of diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya. But Gadhafi, who had survived attempted coups and assassinations, retained his provocative air. In a vintage 90-minute-plus address to the United Nations in 2009, he called the 15-member Security Council the “terror council” and quipped that anti-terrorism measures in the U.S. were like “being a prisoner in the Guantanamo camp, where there is no free movement.”
But he was failing at home. His political and economic reforms were seen as ruses by a population stifled by repression and limited opportunities. In recent years, the country had watched schools, hospitals and other institutions built by the oil money that had helped modernize Libya fall into disrepair. His son Seif al-Islam “implicitly criticized” his father’s regime, according to U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.
Gadhafi himself blamed his government for corruption but it was largely seen as posturing. The eastern part of the country around the city of Benghazi, a long-simmering anti-Gadhafi stronghold, grew more restive. Major tribes, the key to power in Libya, grew increasingly wary of him. Gadhafi had lost his touch with manipulating clan loyalties with money and power.
Meanwhile, the antics and lavish lifestyle of his family, which diplomatic cables described as providing “enough dirt for a Libyan soap opera,” became more of an embarrassment. His son Muatassim, Libya’s national security adviser, paid Mariah Carey $1 million to sing four songs at a private party in the Caribbean.
A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable titled “Thug Life” describes Gadhafi’s strained ties with Switzerland after his son Hannibal was arrested in Geneva on charges of abusing servants.