WASHINGTON - Facing a Friday deadline, the State Department is poised to renew U.S.-Libyan travel restrictions for only several months instead of the full year allowed under law, angering relatives of those killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and amounting to what some see as a new step in warming U.S. relations with Libyan Col. Muammar el Kadafi.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is strongly considering a measure that would extend the travel restrictions on Americans in Libya for another three or six months, according to congressional aides and families of bombing victims who have been briefed by the department.
Such a move would strike a compromise between contending parties, both of which have their champions within the Clinton administration, and would delay a decision on permanently lifting the travel restrictions until early in the term of the next president.
On one side are U.S. oil interests, who fear that Europeans are getting a head start on the redevelopment of Libyan petroleum resources and see a lifting of U.S. travel restrictions as a first step toward full economic relations with Tripoli. The oil companies are backed by administration officials who contend that Kadafi, whom Ronald Reagan once called "the mad dog of the Middle East," has changed his ways.
The petroleum interests want an end to the 19-year-old restriction, specifically a ban on using U.S. passports in Libya. And they're pressing for an end to wider economic sanctions.
The oil corporations are opposed by relatives of the Lockerbie victims and by counterterrorism specialists in the administration, who argue that Libya's continued presence on the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring countries and the strong links between Kadafi and the alleged bombers require a continuation of the travel restrictions.
"This is a battle that we've been fighting with [the administration] at least since April and probably longer than that," said Robert Monetti, president of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, one of several groups representing Lockerbie families. "Sanctions are the only leverage we have against Kadafi and his country, and once they're lifted, they're not ever going back in place."
Strictly speaking, Albright is supposed to base her decision to renew it on safety issues for U.S. travelers, not on wider diplomatic or security considerations. A U.S. team visited Libya earlier this year to assess safety issues and reportedly found no reason to maintain the travel curb.
But parties on both sides acknowledge that lifting the restriction would be seen as a significant step in U.S.-Libyan rapprochement.
"I was expecting them to allow that as the next step," said Herman Cohen, a former U.S. ambassador to Senegal who represents several African nations, but not Libya, in Washington. "It's something that's less condemnable than, say, opening up Libya for trade and aviation."
Even an extension of the travel restriction by a few months instead of the customary year would give Kadafi a boost in prestige, said bombing victims' families and other opponents - even though the government could simply re-extend it the next time it expires.
Shortening the duration of the travel-curb renewal "is itself a kind of decision and a kind of signal," said Dan Cohen, a New Jersey resident whose daughter died in the Flight 103 bombing. "Whatever cover is on it, it's a political decision. Libya is no safer or less safe than it was two or three years ago."
Failure by the State Department to renew the travel restriction for another full year "would mean a lot," said a congressional aide who has been following the matter. "It's a change in policy symbolically at a time when the trial [of two Libyans in the bombing of Flight 103] is under way."
"Kadafi is the one who ordered the hit. If these guys are found guilty, it's Kadafi we want to go after," said George H. Williams of Joppatowne, whose son was killed in the crash. "Allowing people to go over there and travel I don't think is the wisest thing to do. I don't think it's the safest thing to do."
While many analysts and U.S. law enforcement officials believe Kadafi was behind the bombing, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan assured the Libyan leader in a letter last year that the trial would not be used to undermine his rule.
But even if Kadafi is never subjected to criminal prosecution, relatives of the bombing victims want Washington to use U.S. sanctions as leverage to get Libya to settle civil litigation in the case.
U.S. oil companies would like an immediate end to all sanctions. Oil executives note that the United Nations dropped its sanctions last year after Kadafi turned over the bombing suspects and that European companies are rushing to sink new wells in the promising Libyan desert.
Last year, Britain renewed full diplomatic ties with Libya. Many Western diplomats say that, while Kadafi still bears watching, he has shown no signs of sponsoring terrorism in years. And they argue that opening the Libyan spigot would significantly reduce world petroleum prices.
An oil industry conference on Libya last month in Nice, France, included representatives of several U.S. oil companies, including Texaco, Marathon, Occidental and Conoco, according to conference sponsor SMI Group.
Little wonder, said industry analysts, who noted that Libyan oil is among the best, most plentiful and easily accessible in the world. "Libyan oil in most places is damn near good enough to run in your automobile," said R. Gerald Bailey, an industry consultant and former president of Exxon's Persian Gulf operations. "The Europeans are already in there and way ahead."
Ultimately, the future of U.S. sanctions on Libya will depend on who ends up in the White House. Republican George W. Bush and running mate Richard Cheney, both with backgrounds in the oil business, are seen by regional specialists as more likely to lift restrictions on travel, trade and investment.