TRIPOLI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi -- once reviled as a “mad dog” by a U.S. president -- on Friday on a historic visit which she said proved that Washington had no permanent enemies.
Rice’s trip, the first by a U.S. secretary of state to the North African country in 55 years, is intended to end decades of enmity, five years after Libya gave up its weapons of mass destruction program.
“I think we are off to a good start. It is only a start but after many, many years, I think it is a very good thing that the United States and Libya are establishing a way forward,” Rice told a news conference after talks with Gaddafi at a compound bombed by U.S. warplanes in 1986.
She said she hoped there would be a new U.S. ambassador in Libya “soon”.
“Rice’s visit is proof that Libya has changed, America has changed and the world has changed. There is dialogue, understanding and entente between the two countries now,” said Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam.
For years, Washington considered Gaddafi a major supporter of terrorism and one of its most prominent enemies.
Incidents such as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, for which a Libyan agent was convicted, and the U.S. air raids on Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986 sent tensions soaring.
But in recent years Gaddafi has cooled his anti-Western rhetoric and sought to bring Libya back into the international mainstream.
On Friday, he welcomed Rice in an incense-perfumed room in his compound and they later took Iftar, the traditional meal breaking the fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Gaddafi, wearing a white robe and a green brooch in the shape of Africa, did not shake hands with Rice but put his right hand over his heart. By Muslim tradition, men should avoid contact with females during the fasting time.
The large compound where they met includes his former home, which has been kept in ruins since it was bombed by U.S. jets in 1986. The U.S. strike, which killed about 40 people including an adopted daughter of Gaddafi, marked one of the lowest points in the decades of enmity between the two countries.
There was no indication that Rice’s staff saw the ruins, which Libyan officials usually show to visiting dignitaries.
“This demonstrates that the U.S. doesn’t have permanent enemies,” Rice said of her visit.
“It demonstrates that when countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction, the United States is prepared to respond. Quite frankly I never thought I would be visiting Libya and so it is quite something,” she said.
John Foster Dulles was the last U.S. Secretary of State to visit Tripoli -- in May 1953, before Rice was born.
Before her meeting with Gaddafi, Rice and Shalgam discussed cooperation in various fields, especially in oil and in education, Libya’s official Jana news agency reported.
Gaddafi, once called “the mad dog of the Middle East” by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, has in the past expressed admiration for Rice.
“I support my darling black African woman,” he told Al Jazeera TV station last year. “I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders.”
Washington is negotiating a “military memorandum of understanding” with Libya, which cooperates in fighting terrorism and has helped stem the flow of insurgents into Iraq, the State Department said, without giving details.
Rice held back from visiting Libya until a compensation package was signed last month to cover legal claims involving victims of U.S. and Libyan bombings.
Libya finalized the legal arrangements on Wednesday for setting up a fund into which money will be paid. But one senior U.S. official said it would take “more than days” before payments could be made to both sides.
U.S. victims covered include those who died in the Pan Am bombing, which killed 270 people, and the 1986 Libyan attack on a Berlin disco that killed three people and wounded 229. It also compensates victims of the 1986 U.S. air raid.
Rice has come under some domestic criticism for making the trip before the compensation money was paid out. Rights groups are critical because some cases, such as that of ailing political dissident Fathi el-Jahmi, have not been resolved.
Appearing with Rice at a joint news conference, Shalgam said: “We do not need anybody to come and put pressure on us or to give us lectures on how we should behave.”
He added that Jahmi had not suffered injustice and was not “under any kind of pressure.”
Rice told the news conference she had raised human rights cases in her talks in Libya. She did not name the individuals she had discussed, but she was responding to a question about whether she had raised cases including that of Jahmi.