Qaddafi casts a longer shadow

The shadow of Col. Muammer Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, now influences events across much of the Mediterranean, as well as in the Mideastern and African worlds.

While congressional investigators here dissect the tiniest details of Billy Carter's dealings with the fiercely nationalist Qaddafi such capitals as Rome; Tunis (tunisia), Valetta (Malta), Algiers (Algeria), Damascus (Syria), and Cairo are feeling the twists and turns of Libya's foreign policy.

More, Western defense planners -- United States United States and European -- have begun to estimate whether Libya's oil wealth and vast quantities of Soviet military equipment (including over 2,000 tanks stockpiled on its desert territory) would constitute a real threat to southern Europe in case of a European war.

(Colonel Qaddafi already has said the tanks are fur use of his possible new Arab partner, Syria, or any other Arab state desiring to fight Israel.)

What Western defense experts must assess is whether Libya would be a friend or a foe of the West in any US-Soviet confrontation. At a mass rally in Tripoli , Libya, with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria Sept. 9, Colonel Qaddafi used some of the most extreme rhetoric he has ever uttered in public, promising to attack "America's military bases in the Arab homeland" as part of "our legitimate right to defend our existence."

He presumably was referring to port and airfield facilities the US is developing in Egypt, Oman, and Somalia for use in Gulf or Indian Ocean contingencies.

Since Colonel Qaddafi led a successful coup of nationalistic junior officers agains the pro-Western monarchy of King Idris in 1969, he has been rebuffed by one Arab and Mediterranean country after another. Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, and Malta have all rejected his overtures toward a union, an alliance, or a partnership of some sort.

In Malta's case this has now led nearby Italy to step in with aid on behalf of the West.

The colonel's latest effort, announced just before a visit Sept. 8 to Tripoli of Syrian President Assad, is a merger of Libya and Syria. These are two of the Arab states most vehemently opposed to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's peace treaty with Israel, and to ensuing US-sponsored peace efforts, which most Arab states feel have failed.

With armed forces of only about 35,000 men oversupplied with advanced Soviet, French, British, and Italian military equipment but undertrained in the equipment's use, the strength behind Colonel Qaddafi's zeal lies more in economic than in military power.

First of all, most recent visitors to Libya agree, Colonel Qaddafi has built a strong popular power base at home, despite dissent in his Army and civil service. He has done this by spending billions on housing, schools, social services, and in other useful and popular ways at home.

France and Italy have contributed to Libya's otherwise mainly Soviet-made military machine.They are important oil customers of Libya. But Colonel Qaddafi has a real European economic toehold only in Italy.

In 1977, Libya bought a 10 percent interest in Italy's giant Fiat automobile works for $415 million, and acquired an option to increase this holding. Since then, low-interest Libyan loans have poured into Italy's cash-hungry economy, mainly to help the Italian national oil company, ENI, to launch joint ventures with the Libyan national oil company.

Like its fellow members of the European Community and the United States, Italy finds Libya's high-grade, low-sulfur oil, easily delivered from nearby to Italy's back doorstep, too tempting to pass up -- though Libya ranks quantitatively behind Saudi Arabia and Iraq as an oil supplier to Italy.

By 1985, Italy hopes to reduce its huge oil import bill and dependence on Arabe oil by buying more Arab gas. The trans-Mediterranean gas pipeline, now under construction, avoids Libyan territory. It will bring Algerian natural gas from Hassi R'Mel in the Sahara, crossing underwater from Tunisia to Sicily.

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