Libya's leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, seems to be seeking an independent nuclear capability for Libya. He also appears to be preparing his rich but isolated North African nation for possible future war with Israel, Egypt, or even the United States.
A Western visitor, encouraged by the Libyan "people's bureau" which serves as an embassy in Washington to seek an interview with Colonel Qaddafi, found that was impossible. The colonel was absent in the south, perhaps conducting Libyan military operations in Chad, Libya's southern neighbor, currently wracked by civil war.
The same visitor found the ubiquitous portraits of Colonel Qaddafi and revolutionary slogans in public places as a classic expression of a third-world leader's preoccupation with personal power. Less strongly in evidence, but no less real, are defense preparations of all kinds.
Third-world diplomats who have talked with senior Libyan military officers gave the following account of Libya's nuclear preparations.
Colonel Qaddafi and the late Pakistani president Zulfikar ali Bhutto (who was executed in 1979) discussed possible Libyan access to any possible "Islamic bomb" developed in Pakistan's crash nuclear weapons program. In 1977 and possibly 1978, the colonel sent planes carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in untraceable Libyan cash to provide financing for the Pakistani project, now well advanced near Islamabad.
However, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani chief of state who ousted and replaced Mr. Bhutto, by early this year had begun turning away from the Bhutto-Libyan connection. Some Pakistani military pilots and instructors were withdrawn from Libya, probably with approval of Saudi Arabia, which has been locked in a bitter quarrel with Colonel Qaddafi since his recent charges that US planes "desecrated" Muslim holy places in Saudi Arabia.
After concluding nuclear accords with India, the soviet Union, and possibly Argentina that are expected to give Libya a nuclear research capacity, Colonel Qaddafi has opted for a "home-grown" Libyan nuclear capacity. (His chief aide, Maj. Abdel Salem Jalloud, was once gently rebuffed by the late Chou En-lai when he tried to buy a Chinese nuclear bomb in Peking.)
Industrial sources here report that rather than trying to emulate iraq or Brazil by buying a complete system, the Qaddafi approach will to be obtain bits and pieces. Included will be a nuclear-fueled electric power generating plant from various Western firms, a reprocessing plant to make plutonium from Niger, and Chad uranium, which Libya is now fighting in Chad to secure.
Libya meanwhile is sending thousands of students to the United States, west Germany, and France, to study nuclear physics. The Libyans believe scientists and contractors could be found to assemble the plant's components here. Only the key question of where to purchase the reactor core is regarded here as difficult.
The Libyans are well aware that their new and equally isolated ally, Syria, would wish to share this nuclear weapon. They fear that Israel would strike hard to deny them nuclear capability, since they have carefully followed Iraq's experiment in purchasing a nuclear reactor system from France.
Israeli intelligence agents destroyed the first core of the French Osiris reactor sold to Iraq before it left France. The Egyptian physicist directing the program was mysteriously murdered in France. Two unmarked Phantom aircraft, which French sources say were Israeli, damaged the second reactor in Baghdad with rockets during the early days of the Iran-Iraq war.
Since Libya's "patchwork" nuclear plant probably would be most easily cooled by sea water and would need nearby railroads, highways, and existing electric power lines, Libya's populated Mediterranean coastal strip would be the most likely location, according to potential contractor.
Since his underclared defensive war of four days against President Sadat's Egyptian forces in July 1977, colonel Qaddafi has quietly ordered a number of defense measures:
* With imported African labor he is building a fortified "eastern wall" along the Egyptian border.
* Qaddafi ordered a multibillion-dollar petro complex, upon which US and other Western firms are bidding or trying to bid, moved westward from the Bengazi area to Raslanuf. This is about one-third of the distance from Bengazi to Tripoli; it is Qaddafi's home tribal territory, and there is talk that it may become Libya's new capital.
* Qaddafi on Nov. 3 announced compulsory military training for Libyan teenagers.
* Travelers have been advised that Libya is likely to close its second-biggest international airport at Bengazi by early 1981 and will convert it into a heavily defended strategic military base.