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Moammar Gadhafi Ruled Libya With An Iron Fist

Moammar Gadhafi ruled Libya with an iron fist for more than four decades. He was an unpredictable, often brutal leader with a grand vision of himself. In the end, he squandered his country's wealth and lost the support of his people.

During his 42 years of rule, Gadhafi reinvented his image many times — from revolutionary to Arab nationalist, freedom fighter and self-styled leader of Africa.

For about a decade he really saw himself as kind of the new seminal figure in Arab politics. I should say that image was not shared by anybody else.

Gadhafi seized power in September 1969 after a nearly bloodless coup overthrowing then-King Idris. Dirk Vandewalle, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth and author of A History of Modern Libya, says that back then Gadhafi was a slim, handsome and austere young military officer who already had an outsized sense of himself.

"Very clearly 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," he says.

Visions Of An Arab Renaissance

Vandewalle says Gadhafi's hero at the time was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of neighboring Egypt. Both men shared an anti-Western sentiment and a vision of Arab renaissance. Nasser's death in 1970 gave Gadhafi an opportunity.

"In a sense, Gadhafi took over this mantle of Arab nationalism, Arab socialism at the time," Vandewalle says. "For about a decade he really saw himself as kind of the new seminal figure in Arab politics. I should say that image was not shared by anybody else."

Gadhafi came from humble beginnings; he was born in a tent in 1942 in the northeastern town of Sirte. Despite that, David Mack, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who first met Gadhafi after he seized power, says the leader received an unusually thorough education for a Libyan of that time — technical and military training, along with a masters degree in history.

"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," says Mack.

That erratic behavior also was 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 Mack says was quite jumbled.

"I would describe this ... 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," says Mack.

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 pockets of Gadhafi's inner circle. But Tremlett says the Libyan leader put some of the oil 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 along the Mediterranean coast.

"They now 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," says Tremlett.

Erratic Behavior

But he 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 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, launching a series of attacks on several Libyan installations.

Nearly 100 people were killed in the U.S. attacks. Gadhafi said one of his children, an adopted daughter, was among them. Two years later, Gadhafi was alleged to be behind the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 243 passengers and 16 crew members.

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.

With the downing of the PanAm flight, Libya became an international pariah and remained so for nearly a decade. But then Gadhafi began to remake his image again. In 2003, Gadhafi agreed to make reparations for the families of victims of PanAm 103, and he agreed to renounce his unconventional weapons program.

But when this year's uprisings spread from Tunisia and Egypt into Libya, Gadhafi tried to brutally crush the protesters. Several times, he appeared on television, defiantly refusing to step down.

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

"What we saw those last days was Gadhafi harking back to the kind of language he had used since he came to power — very defiant, being willing to fight to the last bullet," Vandewalle says. "In the end, the true Gadhafi was revealed again."

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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.
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