Libyan leader Col. Moammar Kadafi is rarely dull, whether creating the "Great Man-Made River" to bring water across 1,000 miles of desert or offering to procure a lawyer for President Clinton in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.
But even given his predilection for the bizarre, the dictator, who is beginning his 30th year in power, caught many of the world's Arabs by surprise last month by proclaiming that he had given up on them.
"The Arab world is finished," declared Kadafi, peeved at what he perceived as lukewarm solidarity among fellow Arabs for his campaign to escape U.N. sanctions imposed on Libya because of the bombing of a jetliner over Scotland.
"I have no more time to waste talking with Arabs," he said. "I now talk about Pan-Africanism and African unity."
It was a dramatic turnaround for a strongman who has made Arab unity his political touchstone since the 1960s. And Kadafi did more than talk.
After his comments, Libya's government eliminated its Ministry for Arab Unity. State television removed the map of the Arab world that has been its backdrop since 1969, replacing it with a map of the African continent.
"I would like Libya to become a black country. Hence, I recommend to Libyan men to marry only black women and to Libyan women to marry black men," Kadafi said in a televised interview.
Such actions and comments might be dismissed as pique, but they reflect serious pressures now bearing down on Kadafi, who must decide whether to hand over for trial the two Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.
The United States and Britain agreed Aug. 24 to Kadafi's longtime proposal that the suspects in the bombing, which killed 270 people, including 189 Americans, be tried in the Netherlands before Scottish judges and under Scottish law.
Previously, Washington and London had insisted that the suspects be tried in the U.S. or Britain, and some relatives of the victims criticized the shift as coddling. The U.S. and British said their offer was not negotiable.
If Kadafi does not turn over the suspects, the U.N. Security Council warned, Libya could face a toughening of sanctions that already include a U.N.-imposed ban on international air travel and arms sales and a freeze on some Libyan assets abroad. New sanctions could include a ban on the oil sales that help keep the North African country's economy afloat.
Nevertheless, more than one month later, it remains uncertain whether Kadafi will comply. He has raised a series of questions about the trial, including how appeals would be handled, where the suspects would be imprisoned if convicted and how their rights would be protected.
Diplomatic sources here believe that Kadafi wants the trial of Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah to go forward--but under the Libyan leader's terms. In particular, he would like to ensure that, once in custody, the two men will not be used by prosecutors to build a case against Libya itself, which some in the West believe had a hand in the bombing.
Kadafi wants to make sure that the men won't be transferred to Britain or the United States if convicted--a demand that Libya's U.N. ambassador, Abuzed Omar Dorda, underlined before the General Assembly this week--and wants the trial to stay focused on their alleged individual actions.
In spite of Kadafi's irritation with Arabs, the 22-member Arab League is trying to act as intermediary to address Kadafi's concerns. Its secretary-general, Ahmad Esmat Abdel Meguid, has been in contact with British and U.S. officials.
Scotland has appointed prosecutors, and a trial site has been designated on a Dutch air base. But it is anyone's guess whether the Libyan suspects will have their day in court. "I think he [Kadafi] is going to try to weasel out of it one way or another," a Western official said.
In the meantime, Kadafi became annoyed last month when Arab foreign ministers meeting here would not defy the U.N. flight ban on Libya, as various African leaders have done since June. Kadafi's switch to Pan-Africanism, however, has tended only to alienate his old friends.
Kadafi is wrong to ignore all that Arabs have done to support him, wrote Talman Salman, publisher of Beirut's As Safir newspaper. Kadafi's fleeing from the Arab world, Salman wrote, "does neither the Arabs nor Libya any good."