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Analysis : Initiates Some Dramatic Changes in a Reeling Libya : Kadafi Comes Back From Brink, Again

Times Staff Writer

If Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi had gone into business instead of politics, he probably would have been a corporate raider. For many years now, the mercurial colonel has been pursuing what might be described as the revolutionary equivalent of a hostile takeover bid.

Obsessed with realizing his own peculiar vision of Arab unity, Kadafi has been seeking to merge Libya with other Islamic countries ever since he came to power 19 years ago. Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Sudan and Chad have all figured in his unity plans at one time or another, some of them more than once.

None of these plans ever got very far, however. Even when merger agreements were signed, they rarely lasted for long, and the partings were always unpleasant. One by one, Kadafi made enemies of his neighbors and, far from vaulting Libya to the apex of some grand and unified pan-Arab design, only accelerated its rapid decline into near total isolation.

Bare Shelves

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At home, things were also sliding from bad to worse. The economy was in shambles, supermarket shelves were empty and nearly all of the shops were closed save for those peddling “revolutionary rock” music cassettes, copies of Kadafi’s “Green Book” manifesto and other trinkets of an ersatz revolution with which ordinary Libyans had long ago tired.

Events reached their nadir last year after Kadafi’s forces were badly routed from Chad in a stunning climax to a series of setbacks that began the year before, with the U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi. Now, on top of Arab indifference and U.S. hostility, Kadafi had to contend with widespread disaffection within--and mass desertions from--his 75,000-member armed forces.

Not for the first time--but perhaps with more zeal than before--Kadafi’s critics began predicting his downfall.

Several months later, however, it seems clear the critics have once again underestimated the wily colonel.

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Bulldozing Prisons

Kadafi, in his latest incarnation, first appeared in public in March when, sitting atop a bulldozer, he personally demolished the walls of a Tripoli prison where several hundred inmates, many of them political prisoners, had been incarcerated.

“People,” declared Kadafi, “don’t triumph by building prisons and raising their walls ever higher.”

Taking their cue from the Leader, as Kadafi is called at home, Libyans throughout the country mounted bulldozers and began demolishing prison walls. All told, about 7,000 prisoners have been freed since March, according to reports from the Libyan capital.

The reforms have not stopped there, however. In an equally dramatic series of gestures since March, Kadafi has re-established relations with Chad, mended fences with Tunisia and even put out tentative feelers about a possible rapprochement with the next U.S. Administration in Washington, diplomats said.

At home, he has eased restrictions on imports, encouraged the rebirth of small-scale private enterprise, abolished travel restrictions and promised to rein in the overzealous “revolutionary committees” that had terrorized the populace and that, Kadafi admitted with extraordinary candor last month, were guilty of murdering political opponents.

Mercurial Actions

Those who doubt the sincerity of these reforms note that they have been announced with the same kind of mercurial impulsiveness that characterizes all of the colonel’s unpredictable actions. What he does one day, he’s liable to undo the next, they maintain.

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Moreover, they say, even if Kadafi really does intend to embark on his own personal brand of perestroika-- as Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s program of change in the Soviet Union is called--there is still more than a small element of lunacy in Libya’s political spring.

To cite two recent examples:

Kadafi presided over a graduation ceremony for military cadets in Tripoli last month. After handing out the diplomas, he proceeded to tell the young officers that they had, in effect, studied for nothing because he had decided to abolish Libya’s “classical army.”

Denouncing violence in sports, he later detained Libya’s Olympics team just before it boarded a plane for Seoul. Puzzled Olympic Committee officials in the South Korean capital said they got a rambling telex from the colonel condemning the Olympics and citing in particular the barbarity of bullfighting, which is not an Olympic sport.

“Do not be fooled,” said an Egyptian military analyst who follows events in Libya closely. “Kadafi is just as loony as ever.”

This official, like many other Libya watchers, suspects that Kadafi’s political reforms may be nothing more than a tactic to flush out opponents at home and reverse Libya’s isolation abroad. There has, he notes, been “no real change” in Libya’s support for international terrorism that could signal a more fundamental shift of direction.

Still, diplomats in Tripoli note that the change in the Libyan capital in recent months is nothing short of remarkable. The once-shuttered souk, or marketplace, is bustling with activity again, and the formerly bare shelves of the state supermarkets are filled now with everything from roast chickens to imported French cheese.

The reforms have also paid off in the area of foreign relations. Citing the “positive changes” in Libya, West Germany announced last month that it was sending an ambassador to Tripoli after a two-year absence. American oil companies are said to be quietly negotiating their possible return to Libya in the expectation that the next U.S. Administration will ease a trade embargo imposed two years ago.

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