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Looking Back at Gadhafi’s Brutal, Sometimes Bizarre 42-Year Reign

October 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Moammar Gadhafi, killed by rebel forces on Thursday, had been hunted by rebels since the Arab Spring began in Libya in February. Gwen Ifill reports on how the dictator came to power, his 42-year rule and his mostly contentious relationship with the U.S.

MARGARET WARNER: Moammar Gadhafi loomed large on the world stage.

Gwen Ifill looks at how he came to power, his more than four decades of iron-fisted rule, and his contentious relationship with the United States.

GWEN IFILL: The man who met his end today had ruled Libya with a brutal hand since 1969. Moammar Gadhafi was a 27-year-old colonel when he led a bloodless coup that deposed the government of King Idris.

Over the decades, the eccentric son of a bedouin herder periodically and flamboyantly claimed the world stage. He was often characterized as unstable.

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


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

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, Libyan leader (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.

GWEN IFILL: But his infamous support of international terror inspired little love.

Libya’s vast oil wealth was widely considered the source of financing for training camps. Gadhafi denied those charges. In 1981, he appeared on “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report.”

ROBERT MACNEIL: How do you answer charges that Libya is involved in promoting and supporting and training international terrorists?

MOAMMAR GADHAFI: This accusation without any justification, also no evidence that we support or promote terrorism. We are against terrorism, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: In that same interview, he chastised Washington after his diplomats were expelled by the Reagan administration.

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

MOAMMAR GADHAFI: I don’t expect now anything because it is not a serious step. We lost nothing.

GWEN IFILL: But, in 1986, the U.S. blamed Libya for the bombing of a Berlin nightclub which killed two American soldiers and wounded more than 50.

President Reagan dubbed Gadhafi:

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

GWEN IFILL: And followed up with bombing raids on Tripoli and Benghazi.

RONALD REAGAN: We have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.

GWEN IFILL: Forty-five Libyans were killed, including Gadhafi’s adopted daughter at the family compound. What had by now become a cycle of retribution between the U.S. and Libya climaxed two years later in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Just before Christmas, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed, killing 270 people in the air and on the ground. Libya was directly tied to that attack. Gadhafi denied complicity, even though Libyan intelligence agents were later tried, and convicted, for the bombing. But more than a decade later, the Libyan government paid millions of dollars to families of the Pan Am victims.

And in 2003, just days after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi made another important overture to the West.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Today, in Tripoli, the leader of Libya, Colonel Moammar al-Gadhafi, publicly confirmed his commitment to disclose and dismantle all weapons of mass destruction programs in his country.

GWEN IFILL: That decision paved the way for renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Libya. Business investment flowed into the oil-rich nation, bolstering the vast reserves that were the source of Gadhafi’s power.  

Nearly 20 years before, Robert MacNeil asked Gadhafi if that grip could ever be broken.

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

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

GWEN IFILL: But a quarter-century later, those very people took up arms against him, inspired by uprisings throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

MAN: We saw what happened in Egypt. We saw what happened in Tunisia. And last Thursday, we came out to demonstrate here, and the people — and we were attacked. The police were shooting at us. We — what could we do? Our brothers, our sisters are being killed.

GWEN IFILL: Libya’s uprising began in the eastern city of Benghazi. And though the rebels were emboldened, they were at first uncoordinated and often unarmed. With international support, that soon changed. Gadhafi insisted he would never leave.

MOAMMAR GADHAFI (through translator): Moammar Gadhafi is the glory. I have my gun and my rifle, and I will fight for Libya.

GWEN IFILL: In mid-March, NATO began airstrikes and other operations aimed at protecting civilians. Still, the pro-Gadhafi forces didn’t relent.

As the rebels pressed on, many civilians were caught in the crossfire or trapped. Spring and summer saw an incremental rebel advance. The United States joined 30 other countries in recognizing the National Transitional Council as Libya’s legitimate government.

The capital, Tripoli, fell to the rebels in August. In his last days, Gadhafi was reduced to sending out radio messages to what remained of his regime. Now, eight months after the revolt began, that regime is no more.