Vowing to "die here as a martyr,'' Libya's mercurial strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, said he would fight to the end to stay in power, even as violence spread, major cities were abandoned by security forces and came under the control of pro-democracy demonstrators, and senior Libyan diplomats were calling for the dictator to step down.
"I shall remain here defiant," Gadhafi insisted in a TV speech Tuesday.
Calling the protesters tools of the Americans, Gadhafi said he would give them until Wednesday to disband. After that, he said, he would set security forces on them, and activists would be executed without mercy. "They will beg for pardon, but they will not be pardoned,'' Gadhafi said.
Defiant or not, it looks increasingly like these are the last days of the man President Reagan in 1986 famously termed "this mad dog
of the Middle East.''
What lies ahead for Libya, a major oil-producing North African nation held under Gadhafi's erratic dictatorship for 41 years, remains unclear. Unlike Egypt and some other Middle East nations being shaken by popular protests, Libya has no obvious successor to the current regime. In particular, it lacks the cohesive, well-disciplined military that has taken over in Egypt.
Analysts are already noting evidence that Libya's military is splintering under the pressure from the streets. At least two Libyan air force jets landed in Malta Monday as their pilots defected after refusing orders to bomb civilian demonstrators, and there were reports of some army units joining the protesters. The army chief of staff reportedly has been placed under house arrest.
"If the regime cannot hold the loyalty of the army, then power in the country falls to the tribes,'' said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis and a Middle East expert at Stratfor,
a private international intelligence firm. And with some of Libya's powerful tribes already turning on the Gaddafi regime, "the threat of civil war is very real,'' she said.
Amid the violence in Libya, where at least 300 people have been killed in clashes with pro-government thugs, oil prices leapt to a 2 ½ year high above $108 a barrel. A spokesman for OPEC said it would boost production of crude if Libyan supplies were disrupted.
Gadhafi, who has favored flamboyant costumes and dark aviator glasses, remains the only modern Middle Eastern despot who has taunted the United States to attack him – and survived. He has veered erratically between the vicious domestic crackdowns on display this week, and odd feints toward popular revolution and democracy. Ironically, he has insisted on being called, among other things, "Leader of the Revolution.''
After he seized power in a September 1969 coup, Gadhafi set up a socialist regime, outlawed alcohol and gambling, and declared Libya a "Jamahiriya,'' which he defined as a state run by the masses
. He boasted periodically of his intention to dismantle the government and distribute oil revenues to the people. But as elsewhere in the region, the regime kept itself in power by divvying up oil revenues among a small ruling class, using armed repression against growing popular frustrations at official corruption and the scarcity of jobs and housing.
Dissidents who fled Libya were tracked down and killed, including in an incident in London in 1984 when protesters outside the Libyan embassy came under machine gun fire from the embassy building. The assailants inside fled under diplomatic immunity.
Outside Libya was a different story. Under Gadhafi's rule, Libyan oil revenues were used widely to support anti-colonial rebellions, liberation movements and Islamic and other terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Irish Republican Army and the Black September movement responsible for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Although Iran was more clearly complicit in major acts of terror, including the bombings in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984 that killed 316 Americans
, Gadhafi seemed to become an obsession for Reagan, whom he said "has a goal of a world revolution, Moslem fundamentalist revolution.'' After several minor clashes with Libya, the Reagan administration blamed Gadhafi for the 1986 bombing of a popular GI hangout in Berlin, La Bella, which killed Army Sgt. Kenneth Ford and injured dozens of others.
In an Oval Office speech
on the evening of April 15, Reagan announced that a punitive raid was under way to convince Gadhafi to stop his support for terrorism. Operation El Dorado Canyon
involved some 55 strike fighters and bombers and dozens of support aircraft targeted against Libyan military barracks and bases. In four minutes, some 60 tons of bombs were dropped, killing 60 Libyans but narrowly missing Gadhafi, who rushed out of his compound just before the bombs fell. But Gadhafi's 15-month-old adopted daughter Hanna was among the dead. One U.S. aircraft, an FB-111 bomber, was shot down over the Gulf of Sidra.
The raid was condemned by the U.N. General Assembly, but Reagan retorted: "If necessary, we shall do it again.''
Gadhafi wasn't deterred. Two years later in December, a Pan Am jumbo jet, Flight 103,
exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 on board and 11 people on the ground. Two Libyan agents, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, an intelligence officer, and Lamin Kalifah Fhimah, were subsequently charged with having planted the bomb, and the Libyan regime, after years of denial, accepted responsibility in 2002. Fhimah was acquitted, but Al-Megrahi served in a Scottish prison until 2009, when he was released on compassionate grounds because he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer. Libya in 2008 paid $1.5 billion into a fund to help compensate the victims of the Lockerbie bombing as well as the Libyan victims of El Dorado Canyon.
After the funds were paid, President George W. Bush signed an executive order providing Libya with immunity from terror-related lawsuits.
Gadhafi was widely lauded by the United States and others for offering to give up Libya's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, including a budding nuclear weapons project. The Bush administration asserted that its 2003 invasion of Iraq had scared the Libyan strongman into cooperating with the United States lest he, too, become a victim of "regime change.''
More recently, Gadhafi's erratic behavior has accelerated. In a long-winded, maiden speech to the United Nations
in 2009, Gadhafi tore up a copy of the U.N. charter in front of startled delegates, compared the Security Council to al-Qaeda, demanded that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes, ordered $7.7 billion in compensation for colonialism in Africa and demanded to know who killed John F. Kennedy.
Gadhafi also complained of sleep deprivation after the New York City Council turned down his request to set up an air-conditioned tent in Central Park, forcing him to camp out in a hotel.