Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice becomes the highest-ranking American official to visit Libya in more than a half-century, opening the way for renewed political and economic relations between Libya and the United States.
"It is a historic moment. And it is one that has come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged, Americans in particular, for whom I'm very concerned," Rice said September 5. She flew from Portugal, where she had been meeting with Portuguese officials, for her meeting in Tripoli with Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi.
"I also am looking forward to the opportunity to talk about a number of issues," Rice said.
Rice acknowledged that this meeting was made possible because Libya made the decision in 2003 to abandon its weapons of mass destruction program and to renounce terrorism, and because of a landmark settlement to compensate victims of terrorism. Libya had been on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list, but has been removed as a consequence of its actions to end ties with terrorist groups.
The United States and Libya reached an agreement to resolve lawsuits by American victims of terrorist attacks and Libyan victims of bombings in 1986 and 1988, Ambassador David Welch said. "Under this agreement, each country's citizens can receive fair compensation for past incidents," Welch said August 14 in Tripoli, Libya's capital. "When fulfilled, the agreement we signed today will permit Libya and the United States to move ahead in developing their relations."
The settlement for outstanding lawsuits includes victims of the 1986 terrorist attack on a Berlin disco that killed three people and wounded 229, and the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. It also provides for Libyans killed in 1986 when U.S. warplanes bombed the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, which reportedly led to the deaths of 40 people.
"There is a long way to go, but I do believe that this demonstrates that the United States doesn't have permanent enemies," Rice said en route to Tripoli. "It demonstrates that when countries are prepared to make strategic changes in direction, the United States is prepared to respond."
Rice is the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953, during the Eisenhower administration, and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said in Washington that President Bush hopes to name a new ambassador to Tripoli soon.
"We have had a long and bad history with Libya, and that began to turn around when they turned away from nuclear weapons and terrorism. That country has radically changed its behavior. And Secretary Rice's trip signifies a new chapter in U.S.-Libya bilateral relations," Perino said.
Rice, who was scheduled to be in Tripoli for a few hours, said there is much to talk about with Libyan officials, including efforts to combat terrorism in North Africa, Libya's crucial help in managing the significant conflicts in Sudan and Somalia, Libya's role in the African Union and as a member of the Arab League, direct bilateral relations with the United States for educational and cultural exchanges, and human rights issues.
After meeting with Libya's foreign minister, Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam, Rice was to share an iftar, the traditional meal breaking the fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, with Qadhafi.
After leaving Tripoli, Rice was also scheduled to visit Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.