RABAT (Reuters) - The heart of many homes is the kitchen and that is where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hosted Condoleezza Rice for a Ramadan meal this week, a symbolic gesture to try to end decades of enmity.
The casual setting in a small kitchen on the compound bombed by U.S. warplanes in 1986 was unusual for the first trip by a U.S. secretary of state in 55 years that was aimed at kicking off a new chapter in relations.
But it also underlined Gaddafi’s attempt to bring a more personal touch — including a gift to Rice of a locket with his picture in it and a ring — to start a better relationship with the United States. Rice’s gift was a china plate with the U.S. seal and her signature on it.
Rice’s eight-hour visit had been expected to produce surprises from the unpredictable Libyan leader once referred to by President Ronald Reagan as the “mad dog” of the Middle East.
The drama was tipped to unfold in a tent on the sprawling, fortified compound in Tripoli but Gaddafi opted for a deliberately low-key approach with the top U.S. diplomat he refers to as “Leezza” and “my darling black African woman” in media interviews.
The first recorded public encounter was in a bland reception room, unadorned by flags or any other diplomatic trappings and where the chaos came from jostling photographers and journalists trying to record the awkward moment as Rice’s staff scrambled over furniture to get into the room.
Gaddafi’s appearance was regal rather than military and he wore a crisp, white robe with a green brooch in the shape of Africa, shedding his trademark dark glasses. The female bodyguards he sometimes surrounds himself with were not there.
In the public eye he chose small talk about the weather and inquired about Rice’s health. But after the cameras had left, Rice said the two immediately got down to business, talking about a wide range of issues from Sudan to the Middle East.
Rice, who later visited Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, described her meeting with Gaddafi as a “fairly normal diplomatic exchange” that had got off to a good start but that the relationship was still in its infancy.
“We have a long way to go. I think it’s not surprising to anyone that the United States and Libya don’t always agree on every issue,” she said.
There is a queasiness among some U.S. officials in embracing Gaddafi fully, with suspicions over his motives.
It is also a sensitive issue politically in the United States, with some well-placed senators tentative over moving too fast to rehabilitate Gaddafi because of ill will and anger stemming from the Lockerbie bombing over Scotland and other attacks in the 1980s in which Americans were killed.
“We have rehabilitated the man who was personally responsible for killing more Americans than anyone else before Osama bin Laden,” said former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, referring to the al Qaeda leader blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
“That is realpolitik at its best,” added Riedel of the rapprochement between Gaddafi and Washington. “There are many who are not too happy to see this happening,” he added.
There are also questions over how to rationalize engagement with Libya because of concerns over its human rights record. A key tenet of the Bush administration’s policy is to spread democracy across the Middle East and elsewhere.
The Libyan leader has the same disdain of Americans in his public statements, saying earlier in the week before Rice arrived that he wanted neither to be a friend nor enemy of the United States but for Libya to be left alone.
That mistrust was exposed during Rice’s visit when the two were set to sign a cultural and educational exchange agreement, intended to bring the people of both countries closer.
Reporters were called to witness the signing between Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and a senior Libyan official but then told abruptly there was a change of plan.
Asked later why the signing was canceled at the last minute, a senior U.S. official said it was because the Libyans wanted to change some of the language.
“We can get to it later on,” he said with a smile.
Reporting by Sue Pleming; editing by William Maclean and Cynthia Osterman