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Gadhafi’s 42-Year Rule of Libya a Mix of Iron Rule, Eccentricities

February 23, 2011 at 6:31 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And on to a two-part look at the Libya crisis and the man at the heart, the soul and the face of it.

Moammar Gadhafi is already one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, after more than 40 years in power. And Tuesday, during his rambling 75-minute speech, he insisted he would never resign.

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, Libyan leader (through translator): Moammar Gadhafi is the glory. If I had a position, if I were a president, I would have resigned. I would have thrown my resignation in your face. But I have no position, no post. I have nowhere to resign from. I have my gun. I have my rifle to fight for Libya.

JIM LEHRER: Then a 27-year-old army Col. Gadhafi, he took power in a 1969 revolution, overthrowing Libya’s king in a bloodless coup. Since then, this son of a herdsman has periodically and flamboyantly appeared on the world stage, as he did Monday night to prove he had not fled to South America.

Gadhafi has no official government function, but he definitely rules the country. He has often been characterized as unstable.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC News: We read that you are mad.

(LAUGHTER)

BARBARA WALTERS: You know that those things have been printed. Does it make you angry?

MOAMMAR GADHAFI (through translator): Of course it irritates me. Nevertheless, I consider or do believe that the majority of the ordinary people in the four corners of the globe do love me, because they have different vision of that of the official governments.

JIM LEHRER: For many years, he was best known in the West as a principal backer of international terror, using Libya’s vast oil wealth to provide funds and training camps.

Gadhafi defended his actions, and he scolded Washington in an interview on the NewsHour in 1981, after President Reagan expelled Libyan diplomats from the United States.

What kind of retaliation can the United States expect for the expulsion?

MOAMMAR GADHAFI (through translator): I don’t expect now anything, because it is not a serious step. We lost nothing. But I am sorry to see big power like America behave — childish behavior like this.

JIM LEHRER: Four years later, Gadhafi addressed the hijacking of an Egyptian airliner that killed 59 people. He appeared again on the NewsHour, and denied responsibility.

MOAMMAR GADHAFI: The airplane is Egyptian. The hijackers are Egyptians. And the troops that attacked these innocent people and killed them are Egyptians. The whole responsibility is Egyptian one.

JIM LEHRER: In 1986, the U.S. blamed Libya for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub killing two American soldiers and wounding more than 50.

President Reagan condemned Gadhafi.

U.S. PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: This mad dog of the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: And the president ordered bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi. Forty-five Libyans were killed in the attacks, including Gadhafi’s adopted daughter, when the family compound was hit. Two years later, Libya was tied to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, with 270 people killed. And, today, his former justice minister told a Swedish newspaper Gadhafi personally ordered that attack.

But after 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Gadhafi’s government paid millions of dollars to families of the Pan Am victims. And in 2003, he agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, International Atomic Energy Agency: I think the decision by Libya clearly is a positive decision. It’s a step in the right direction.

JIM LEHRER: With that, the U.S. renewed formal diplomatic relations with Libya. Then, in 2008, Condoleezza Rice became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Libya in more than 50 years.

In the meantime, Western companies stepped up investments in the country’s rich oil reserves. Gadhafi had long relied on those reserves to help him maintain support among his people. And in that 1985 interview, Robert MacNeil asked about his hold on power.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Do you fear that your regime may be ended by a coup?

MOAMMAR GADHAFI: It — I am not afraid. And it is not my regime. It is — people are the regime.

JIM LEHRER: A quarter-of-a-century later, with his people in full revolt, Gadhafi is warning he will fight to the last drop of blood.