COL. MUAMMAR El Kadafi's emissary, Youssef Debri, met me in Cairo last year. He was in Egypt exploring the ramifications of Libya's surrendering two of its citizens to stand trial for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
In formal talks in New York, a U.N. official had managed to narrow the gap between Libya's concerns and the British-American proposal for a trial in the Netherlands, but important differences remained.
Now Debri was in Cairo informally, to clarify Washington's terms with a well-connected, retired American diplomat, in the hope of ending Kadafi's equivocation.
An intimate of Kadafi since their student days at military college, Debri had contacted me some weeks before to propose that I visit Libya. Cut off from the world by the U.N. embargo over Lockerbie, Libya, he said, had grown weary of its isolation.
Under the embargo's terms, it could sell oil -- its only export -- to European customers, so it had money for food and medicines. But the other barriers to trade and transportation were wearing it down. Few businessmen and almost no journalists came to call.
Debri's message was that Libya, anxious for a new start, wanted to put Lockerbie behind it. In Libya, he assured me, I would be free to go where I liked and to see whomever I wanted, including Kadafi.
Having decided to make the journey late last year, I went to the State Department for a briefing. Officials there acknowledged that they knew little about what was going on in Libya. In 1986, two years before Lockerbie, President Reagan broke off relations with Libya and imposed economic sanctions in response to a series of terrorist incidents.
In the past few years, the officials said, Libya had committed no terrorist acts. Unlike Iraq, it posed no strategic threat. But because of Lockerbie, the United States still shunned Kadafi and kept Libya on its list of terrorist states.
In 1991, a U.S. grand jury indicted two Libyans -- Al-Amin Khalifa Fahima, ex-manager of the Libyan Arab Airlines office in Malta, and Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, a high-level intelligence official -- for the Lockerbie bombing. A British court did the same. In 1992, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions, including a flight ban that effectively closed Libya's airports. Tripoli, in response, proposed trying the two suspects in a neutral country, but Washington and London would have none of it.
Then, last August, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced that she would "call the Libyan government's bluff" and offered a trial by a Scottish court seated in the Netherlands. Libya agreed in principle, but Kadafi demanded more details.
On Monday, the two Libyan suspects landed in the Netherlands and were taken into Scottish custody to stand trial for the bombing of Pan Am 103. United Nations sanctions imposed on Libya during the past seven years were partly suspended within hours after a U.N. aircraft brought the accused men to the Netherlands. U.S. sanctions remain in place.
The American embargo did not bar my visit last year (as it makes an exception for journalists). I flew to Cairo; then, with Youssef Debri, set off for Tripoli by car.
We stopped at Benghazi, then Sirte, chosen by Kadafi as Libya's new capital. Around 11 o'clock on the morning after our arrival, Debri and I set out, heading south, to see Kadafi.
After a half-hour ride across the desert, we were met by a police escort, which led us to an almost indiscernible dirt track that ran off the paved road. A bumpy mile or so later, we reached the gate of a chain-link fence, where three or four limousines sat.
Parking our car among them, we piled into a Land Rover, which bucked us over rock and sand a half-hour deeper into the desert. Finally, we reached an encampment of large tents and modern trailers near which grazed a herd of some 200 camels. No armed guards seemed to be anywhere in view.
The tent to which I was first directed was ballroom-size, its sides open to admit the breeze. Seated next to three Africans in native robes, I was offered tea.
The Africans made a brief call on Kadafi, after which Youssef escorted me to Kadafi's tent, pitched nearby, and left me there. Save for a few simple chairs and a table, the tent was bare. Its camel-skin roof and sides were weathered; the rugs covering the sand floor were ordinary.
Kadafi sat alone, except for an interpreter. He wore a thin, tattered Bedouin robe, embroidered at the edges, over a much-laundered print sport shirt and khaki pants. His furrowed face was clean-shaven, his eyes covered by dark glasses. A beige turban half-concealed his bushy hair.
'America is much like Hitler'
I began the interview by asking whether the view that Libya had embarked on a new course was correct.
Kadafi did not turn to me to answer. Looking through the open flaps of the tent, he fixed his eyes on the horizon. His lips seemed barely to move. He spoke in a controlled monotone, though from time to time emotion quickened its pace.
"America," he said, "unfortunately treats us as if the world was the way it used to be. Americans accept that changes have taken place since the end of communism, but not in their treatment of Libya. So, in the end, they take a racist and fanatical position, similar to the way Hitler treated the Jews.
"We feel that America is much like Hitler. We have no explanation for this, except that it is a religious, fanatical, racist position. Some analysts call this a new colonialism. But colonialism is colonialism, and it is always unjust. It is how we were treated by the Italians, Algeria by the French, India by the British. This is imperialism, and we seem to be entering a new imperialist era.
"The cause of our conflict with America is not that we attacked them. We have never attacked an American target. America started the aggression against us right here in the Gulf of Sirte. When we defended ourselves, they attacked us in these very tents.
"We were bombed by missiles in our own territorial waters. In 1986, our own children were killed. No one can bring my daughter back to me. Then Lockerbie came along. Now we'd like this chain of events to be over. But America doesn't want to turn the page. We shall, however, show courage and be patient, and America will be the loser."
The events about which Kadafi rambled date back to 1981, when American jets shot down two Libyan planes in a dispute over the extent of Libya's territorial waters. In January 1986, President Reagan, responding to terrorist attacks in Rome and Vienna, blocked commerce with Libya and froze its American assets. A few weeks later, U.S. Navy planes bombed Sirte and destroyed four patrol boats in another dispute over territorial waters.
In April, Reagan, blaming Libya for a bomb that killed two American soldiers in a Berlin nightclub, attacked Tripoli and Benghazi, along with suspected terrorist camps in the desert. Among the 37 civilians reported killed was Kadafi's adopted infant daughter, Hana'a. Libyans say the child's death haunts him still.
When I asked Kadafi if Libya was responsible for the many terrorist incidents of which it was accused in the 1980s, he issued no denial.
"These incidents that you mention belong to the past," he said. "Once Abu Amar [Yasser Arafat] was wanted. Now he enters the White House with all the trappings, the music, the red-carpet treatment."
I thought I detected a note of envy in his voice.
"They say Libya is a terrorist country," he continued. "But now that is illogical, not reasonable. All these things are of the past, an era that is over. The bombing of the French plane [a French UTA airliner bombed over Niger in 1989, at a cost of 171 lives] took place during a time of war in the region -- Libya, Chad, France. It was similar to America's downing of the Iranian plane in the gulf.
"The Israelis shot down a Libyan aircraft over the Sinai. The Soviet Union shot down a Korean airplane. It was a time of war. So how come you forgot all about that and you just mention the charges against Libya? There is no explanation for that. We go back to the racist, fanatical complexes of America."
Slow to resolve problem
When I suggested to Kadafi that the downing of the other airliners might have been the result of miscommunications, he broke into derisive laughter. But I persisted, asking whether the UTA and Lockerbie bombings were not deliberate efforts to kill.
"Look at your logic, the American logic. Those who use missiles or fighter planes and rockets are legitimate. Those who use explosives or small bombs are considered terrorists. If we use the same logic, Osama bin Ladin will use cruise missiles, the same weapon used by America, and he will not be accused of being a terrorist.
"Whether we were responsible for bringing down the French plane will be decided by a French court. We don't say anything about it. The same is true of Lockerbie. I can't answer as to whether Libya was responsible. Let's let the court decide. Libya has not been convicted of any terrorist act up to this moment. If they accuse us, they have to prove their charges."
Was terrorism, I asked, ever in Libya's national interest?
"Why do you ask me that? Why don't you ask why it is in America's interest to attack us in the Gulf of Sirte, why it is in America's interest to kill our children? Is it so unusual for Libya to have a reaction when these things happen? Who is being unfair?
"We have no interest in being hostile to America. We would be fools to initiate a confrontation with America. But when you face aggression, you have to defend yourself, no matter how small you are. We want a reconciliation with America, but America doesn't want a reconciliation with us."
Is Libya, I asked, ready to turn over the two Lockerbie suspects for trial? His answer, I thought, contained a clue to his procrastination in resolving the problem.
"We have agreed that a trial should take place. Now let us sit down and decide how it can be put into practice. I want to find out the truth about Lockerbie myself. After that, the story will be finished. I am not so concerned about whether the two Libyans are convicted or not. What is important is that the problem come to an end.
"Twice the number of Libyans have died from the embargo than were killed at Lockerbie. Whether this one or that is guilty or not is the business of the lawyers and the courts. What matters is that once the trial starts, sanctions will be over against Libya. The embargo will be lifted."
He went on, pessimistically.
"Naturally, normal relations between our two countries should be restored. But I am sure that because of America's psychological complexes and imperialist designs, such normal relations will not be restored, even if the Lockerbie business is over. America wants to occupy the Gulf of Sirte and the north of Africa. It wants to hand over Egypt and Syria to Israel, so that a Greater Israel is established.
"We have no problems with the West generally. Libya has good relations with Europe. We have European embassies and companies here. But America is different. We are not enemies of the American people. Millions of Arabs, millions of Muslims, millions of Africans are Americans these days. How could we be their enemy? Only imperialist policies prevent our working together. Libya is a victim of American terrorism."
A few minutes later, I was cautiously sipping camel milk in the waiting-tent when Youssef returned. In an urgent tone, he reported, "The Leader wants me to remind you that he was not talking officially and that he was not stating policy. He asks you to remember that he is a private person and was speaking from his heart on what he feels."
Milton Viorsi is a veteran Middle East correspondent. His most recent book is "In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam." This article is adapted from a longer version in Foreign Affairs.