A GREEN four-wheel-drive vehicle with tinted windows stopped in the desert several hundred yards away, beyond a group of camels. The tall, dark figure of Muammar Qaddafi climbed out. Flanked by aides and security guards, he approached slowly, to give what was to be in tone and length one of the more emphatic and detailed interviews since US jets bombed Tripoli 10 months ago.
While he broke little new ground, one Arab specialist in London who analyzed Colonel Qaddafi's Arabic on tape commented: ``The tone is that he is firmly back at the helm after last April, prepared to defend himself in detail and look to the future.''
Among other things, Qaddafi said he and Moscow were engaged in a ``joint struggle'' against Washington, and US actions were pushing him and Moscow closer together. [For Qaddafi's views, see P. 14.]
As he shook hands, Qaddafi was at ease, self-assured, authoritative. He moved deliberately, shoulders squared, head often tilted slightly back. The famous face was smooth, freshly shaved. His manner hovered between dignity, hauteur, and - when discussing President Reagan - disdain.
After more than 17 years in power, Qaddafi is still a youthful-looking man, trim and stylish, and he knows it. He wore sunglasses and a blue aviator-style jump suit, with zippered jacket and trousers tucked into green socks above ankle-length black military boots polished to a high sheen. When he smiled, he showed a film star's teeth, white and regular.
For this American reporter, it was an odd feeling to be standing with him in the Libyan desert. Neither Qaddafi nor Libya itself is easy to get to know.
A fog of security shrouds Qaddafi's every move. His aides, while polite, are experts at shrugs and ambiguity.
I knew only roughly where we were - about 300 miles east of Tripoli, half an hour's ride from the coastal city of Sirte.
Nor did I know just what kind of leader was now motioning me and a British reporter toward a small tent behind us.
Was it the arch-symbol of international terrorism, as he is routinely portrayed in the United States, killer of civilians, implacable stalker of Americans - or a relatively minor Arab leader, less involved in violence than Syria and Iran are, and whose main targets abroad are Libyans, not Americans?
A powerful figure on the world stage - or an idealistic yet isolated and frustrated man whose population (4 million) is tiny, whose oil revenues have shrunk, whose Arab neighbors keep him at arm's length, and whose social experiment at home isn't working too well, either?
Was I talking to a man unbalanced or to a charismatic, eccentric visionary justifying violence abroad on the grounds that the West has committed violence against ``the Arab nation'' for 1,000 years?
Was he indeed ``flaky,'' as the President of the United States has alleged? What drives the emotion and the resentment? Is there a calculated purpose here that Americans might identify, understand, and come to grips with?
Until he actually approached, I wasn't certain the meeting would take place at all. I had flown into slow-paced, Italianate Tripoli from London the day before knowing prospects were hopeful. But then, over the years, scores of invited guests have sat in Tripoli, sometimes for months, waiting for the final summons.
Qaddafi doesn't keep office hours or work behind a desk. The scion of nomadic Bedouin herdsmen and mindful of the need to guard against coup attempts, he keeps on the move. He prefers the desert to the cities and tents to buildings.
The morning of the day we met, aides came to the Kabir Hotel in Tripoli, saying that I was to see a ``Mr. Ramadan.'' Instead, I was taken to the Bab Azziziya military headquarters in Tripoli, guarded by Soviet-made tanks, where Qaddafi's family was sleeping when the US jets dropped their bombs last April 15.
Together with the British reporter, I was shown the still-unrepaired bomb damage, including the living quarters where Libyans say Qaddafi's wife and two sons were injured and his adopted 18-month-old daughter was killed. Qaddafi himself, said to have been sleeping in an underground bunker, was unharmed.
A tall young man in glasses turned out to be Qaddafi's interpreter. Ah - so we might see the Leader of the Revolution (as Qaddafi is referred to here) after all.
But where? At the barracks? In Tripoli? Aides remained silent.
Back in the mini-bus, this time to the airport. But where from there?
``Sirte,'' the answer came - the area where Qaddafi is said to have been born about 44 years ago, though no one seems to know for certain about that, either.
We entered a small comfortable VIP jet - executive seating, tables, red-white-and-blue cans of ``Paradise'' cola, bowls of candy, and a closed-circuit video system that blared the movie ``Airplane'' at top volume, as the desert slid by below.
Back into a bus, off to a military barracks, where we were turned away, ``because the guards don't know about us.''
To another barracks. We drove in and entered a small residential hotel for youthful members of the ``revolutionary committees'' - ideological watchdog groups Qaddafi uses to keep tabs on the military and all other power bases.
Several of the ``young zealots,'' as one Western source in Tripoli describes them, were laughing over a pool table.
Eventually, back in the bus and out into the desert. After lunch in a small building behind the tent (two other small buildings were presumably for communications and administration), revolutionary committee members joined us in the most unusual game of volleyball I've ever played: Westerners versus a team we dubbed the Libyan Radicals, on an outdoor concrete court set into the Libyan desert, under the gaze of bored camels and alert, armed security guards beside Qaddafi's tent, one eye on the road where it was hoped the leader would appear.
The afternoon dragged on. Finally he did appear. He led us into the low, colorful tent.
A beige carpet was laid on the desert floor. Over it were two red, blue, and gold carpets. A white armchair waited for him behind a low table covered with a white cloth. On the table: a gold-colored tissue dispenser, a tiny vase of yellow and white desert flowers, a copy of the colonel's Green Book, which presents his Third Universal Theory to the world (``Third'' to distinguish it from capitalism and communism), and a white-and-green phone.
To the Reagan administration, Qaddafi is a dangerous megalomaniac who finances, trains, and instigates terrorism.
To many Europeans, Qaddafi is a pretentious figure, bombed because of his extravagant Arab rhetoric and because he is more vulnerable to and more distant from Moscow than Iran and Syria are.
But, a US nongovernment terrorism expert in Washington commented later, ``He hasn't done some of the things the White House thought he did .... The US bombing hasn't toppled him. The White House disinformation campaign against Libya ... was foolishness.''
After the interview, Qaddafi affably autographed copies of his Green Book, walked out into the late afternoon with us, posed for pictures, smiled, and went for a walk amid the desert flowers as armed security guards kept watch.
The interview with Qaddafi will be aired this weekend, Feb. 7-8, on The Christian Science Monitor Reports. Consult your local television listings for viewing times.