London — Libyan leader Muammur Qaddafi, the man who backed Idi Amin's brutal regime in Uganda, bankrolled Billy Carter, and armed just about every terrorist from Belfast to Beirut and the Philippines, is one of the biggest riddles in the Middle East.
Colonel Qaddafi sporadically threatens to cut oil sales to the United States, which buys about one-tenth of its crude imports from the colonel's sweltering North African country.
Yet inside Libya, American oil companies such as Mobil, Exxon, and Occidental operate with fewer restraints than in Saudi Arabia or other comparatively pro-US sheikhdoms in the Gulf.
In a similar paradox, Qaddafi the terrorist-backer has improved much inside his own country. Since he and other junior military officers grabbed power in June 1969, Qaddafi has managed to stitch together a nation out of a scattered collection of desert tribes.
Using Libya's huge oil wealth, the colonel has built houses, schools, and hospitals for his sparsely populated country. A political observer commented, "Unlike [Iran's leader] Khomeini, Qaddafi doesn't reject Western technology, he has a fascination for it."
But this fascination, when mixed with Qaddafihs incendiary foreign policies, can cause trouble: Libya helped Pakistan purchase much of the highly sensitive nuclear equipment that former Premier Ali Bhutto needed for his "Islamic bomb."
Despite his sinister machinations and opponent-liquidating "death squads," most neighboring Arab governments see Qaddafi as little more than a troublesome meddler. As one Middle Eastern diplomat claims, "The Libyan colonel is too obsessed with himself to do anything successfully."
To an extent that is true, say Mideast analysts. Colonel Qaddafi badly bungled his attempt to use Billy Carter as an entree to the White House. His assassination squads hunting down exiled political opponents usually manage to kill their targets -- but are almost invariably caught. His dabblings in third-world politics, from mediating in war-torn Cyprus to his last-stand defense of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, have all ended in failure.
Nor can Qaddafi be dismissed as simply Moscow's dustdevil in the Middle East, unleashed to destroy the fragile Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, his neighbor and archenemy. In London, a political expert on Libya's weird strain of Islamic socialism explained, Qaddafihs too unpredictable for the Soviets. He fancies himself more of a messiah than a Marxist."
The Soviet Union, along with North Korea and Pakistan, supplies pilots for Libyan jet aircraft.But in recent years, the Soviet's share of Libya's lopsidedly large defense spending (intelligence services estimate that Qaddafi shells out $500 million each year for his 50,000 armed forces) has dwindled considerably. New orders for 200 tanks, and 32 Mirage fighter-bombers are being filled by British and French companies. Nor can Moscow be too pleased that in the Ethiopian conflict, Libya's mercurial leader backs both the pro-Soviet junta in Addis Ababa and the Eritrean guerrillas fighting it.
Qaddafi's erratic antics have infuriated Western and communist governments alike. Recently the colonel sent his "death squads" across the Mediterranean to liquidate his Libyan opponents in London, Bonn, and Rome.
This appeared to be a curious way to get along with important trading partners. Italy takes much of its oil from Libya, and the Tripoli government owns a $250 million share in Fiat, the large Italian car company.
The French, too, are less than delighted with him. Qaddafi's mobs burned down their embassy in Tripoli, and he has fomented troubles in Chad and Tunisia -- two traditional French preserves.
Among most Arab leaders also, Qaddafi's is considered something of a pariah. Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini suspects, with good reason, that Qaddafi rubbed out fellow clergyman Moussa Sadr, the Iranian spiritual leader for the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon. Moussa Sadr disappeared about two years ago.
Palestinian Yasser Arafat broke with Qaddafi after he found out Libya was secretly backing extremists within the Palestinie Liberation Organization who opposed Arafat's relative moderation and were still intent on blowing Israel off the map.
Officials in the radical regimes of Syria and Iraq privately call Qaddafi "madman." Egyptian President Sadat does so openly. And King Hassan of Morocco has gone one further. The monarch was so incensed about Qaddafi's support for the Polisario Front guerrillas, who are fighting Morocco for independence of phosphate-rich Western Sahara, that he beamed radio broadcasts toward Libya of nothing but dogs barking. He was parodying the old Arab proverb: "Dogs bark, but the caravan passes."
Unless Qaddafi tempers down, say political observers, Libya may soon have to trek on without the colonel. Despite oil revenues of $22 billion this year, Libyans are grumbling about acute economic shortages, political arrests -- over 2,000 people, including high officials, were recently purged -- and the erratic, apparently sleepwalking government.
Early this year in Tobruk, demonstrators angered by food shortages mobbed the local "peoples' committee," Qaddafihs euphemism for city hall. One of the committeemen fired on the crowd with a revolver, and the mob reportedly stoned Qaddafi's appointees to death. Soon after, Qaddafi's reign of terror against exiled Libyan opponents began.
Ostensibly, the Generaly People's Congress, which meets once a year, makes the decisions that have successfully catapulted Libya into an astonishing industrial leap that began in 1969, when Qaddafi, then a 28-year old army captain with a passion for Nasserism and gaudy Egyptian films, chased out Libya's ruling family.
Actually, Qaddafi's highly secretive fiveman revolutionary committee holds the real authority. The key figure on the revolutionary committee is Maj. Abdul Salam Jalloud who, according to diplomatic sources, can be as cold and calculating as Qaddafi is charismatic.
Though he retains no officials title, Jalloud is seen as the chief powerbroker within the chaotic government. A Western diplomat posted in Libya said, "It's Jalloud who phones up Armand Hammer at Occidental and the rest of the oil companies after Qaddafi's press conferences, and tells them not to worry about the colonel's threats to cut off oil exports."
If Libya were to halt crude sales to the US in protest against what Libyan see as its proIsrael policies, the move would hurt Qaddafi more than Ameircans. With the present glut of crude on the international market, the US could easily cover its loss from other sources. Like Iran, Libya would have a hard time replacing American clients, and an even tougher time handling the subsequent loss of a third of its oil revenue. According to political observers, Jalloud is only too aware that an oil cut-off to the US would compound economic problems for Libya's 3 million population.
Occasionally, Qaddafi even lashes out at his No. 2 man. As a warning, Qaddafi's secret police last year arrested Jalloud's brother-in-law without explanation, roughed him up, then released him. This so unnerved Jalloud, according to diplomatic sources, that he dashed around to nine different embassies in Tripoli the next day, securing exit visas for his flight into exile.
So far, Jalloud has not had to use them. As a Western diplomat explained. "For now, Qaddafi is perfectly content to sit back and be a sort of addled philosopher-king, while Jalloud handles the details."
Qaddafi considers himself a folk-hero, a Mao Tse-tung of the Sahara, and is obsessed with his own image. Tripoli is plastered with posters of the ruler highlighting his darkly-handsome, screen-idol looks; Qaddafi as military dictator, with golden sun-glasses and a singer's microphone; Qaddafi as populist prophet, pictured riding through high, green wheat fields on an Arab charger.
Often, he greets foreign dignitaries in a Bedouin tent in the middled of the desert. And before the recent troubles, Qaddafi was sometimes seen driving -- badly, some observers said -- through the streets of Tripoli in a battered Volkswagen.
Last month, Qaddafi was at a barren stubble of Libyan desert called Ras Lanuf that oil money and Western know-how were planning to turn into a new town of 15, 000. Libya relies on expatriate labor for 45 percent of its workforce. Yet Qaddafi was rushing through the groundbreaking ceremony with obvious impatience.
Brusquely, he scraped the wet cement off the foundation stone and thrust the trowel to a nearby aide. Then he glanced around.The heat was unbearable. But instead of marching back to his air-conditioned Cadillac, he went over the TV monitors covering the event. He demanded a play-back, and as his image appeared on the many video-screns, Qaddafi drank in his own bluish image as if it were water from an oasis. Only then did he leave the desert site -- with a wide, self-satisfied smile.