By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Ambassadors from the United States and Libya exchanged hugs and kisses at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday in an unusual public display of affection between former arch enemies.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and his Libyan counterpart Giadalla Ettalhi embraced after a meeting of the council on Iraq.
A reporter asked Khalilzad if the show of affection meant that good relations between the two countries had reached a new high.
Washington’s Afghan-born envoy said his Libyan colleague had just returned from a long absence and his son had gotten married. Khalilzad said it was a tradition to congratulate the groom’s father and ask him if his pockets are empty.
"Because unlike in the United States, in the Middle East it is the groom’s side that pays for all the expenses of the wedding," Khalilzad said.
The United States began restoring diplomatic ties with Tripoli after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said in 2003 that he would abandon his nuclear, chemical and biological arms programs. Washington withdrew its ambassador to Libya in 1972.
Relations between the two countries reached a low in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Washington designated Libya a "state sponsor of terrorism" and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan referred to Gaddafi as the "mad dog of the Middle East."
In 1986, U.S. aircraft bombed Tripoli, Benghazi and the home of Gaddafi. Libya said more than 40 people were killed, including Gaddafi’s adopted baby daughter.
But tensions remain as the countries try to work together on the 15-nation Security Council. Libya was elected to it last year after Washington dropped its opposition. Its term ends in December 2009.
Questions pertaining to Israel and the Palestinians are especially divisive.
Earlier this year in a speech to the council, another Libyan envoy compared the situation in the Gaza Strip to the Nazi Holocaust, prompting Khalilzad’s deputy and other Western envoys to walk out of the council chamber in protest. (Editing by Xavier Briand)