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Libya's showman extraordinaire. Qaddafi still has flair, but seems to lack former enthusiasm

By Kieran CookeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 16, 1986

Tripoli, Libya

Cecil B. De Mille and a Hollywood cast of thousands could not have done better. We were standing in the desert, about 200 miles south of the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya. Suddenly there were hootings and strange, macabre wailing sounds from the Arab women. A convoy of jeeps, flanked by Bedouin tribespeople on horseback, snaked across the horizon. Dust clouds swirled against the setting sun.

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Col. Muammar Qaddafi, b^ete noir of Ronald Reagan and leader of this revolutionary Arab nation of just under 4 million people, had arrived. Dressed in a grey jump suit and combat boots, the Libyan leader was immediately immersed in the frenzied, chanting crowd.

Part of the Qaddafi style is to do the unexpected, at times the outrageous. Following the United States bombing raid on Libya in April, he dropped out of sight. There was speculation about his health. He was said to be in a state of psychological shock as a consequence of the bombing. Two of his children had been killed and his house -- now turned into a national shrine -- in the heavily fortified Army barracks in the center of Tripoli had been destroyed.

Yet here was the colonel appearing at a number of carefully stage-managed rallies, as confident and full of bluster as ever. At his first public appearance in Tripoli since the US bombing, he spared no language in condemning President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Later, at a surprise appearance at the ``nonaligned'' nations' summit in Zimbabwe, Colonel Qaddafi threatened to form his own international army to ``spread fire under the feet of America.''

Following the colonel at various orchestrated rallies and parades, however, it was hard to overlook the feeling that something had changed.

At close quarters, the Libyan leader looks dazed and distracted. While very conscious of the foreign media's presence -- at one stage he delayed the start of a military parade for the arrival of a US film crew -- he refused to talk or answer questions, something he had been only too willing to do in the past. His smile seemed wooden, his fist waving mechanical and lacking enthusiasm.

Once, between gatherings in the countryside, the colonel sat slumped in the back of his open-topped green Cadillac. He looked tired and dejected, a khaki Army hat perched atop his bushy hair.

Since April, Qaddafi has moved restlessly around the country, rarely spending more than a night in any one place. He spends most of his time in the vast desert areas in the south, among the Bedouin, his own people.

``Even here in his own country, he acts like a guerrilla leader,'' one resident commented.

Reporting on the elusive, enigmatic colonel is not easy.

Chaos surrounds him and -- as his young guards butt and shove with their Kalashnikov rifles -- there is danger as well. An Italian cameraman had his arm broken; another was trampled on by an overly excited horse. A very striking female bodyguard, constantly at the colonel's side, made life difficult for an American camera woman.

Gauging popular support for Qaddafi is not easy. But Libyans, generally a warm and relaxed people, do not as a whole seem overly enthusiastic about their leader's revolutionary ideas.

Qaddafi draws much of his support from the young. A large proportion of Libya's population is under 15 years old, and has known no other system than Qaddafi's -- a system that has brought many benefits, including free medical care and education. These youngsters have also been thoroughly immersed in the ideals of the Libyan revolution.