By Hans Nichols, The Hill, Washington, D.C., January 21, 2004
WASHINGTON.......Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) will lead a historic
congressional delegation to Tripoli this weekend to hold talks with Libyan
leader Muammar Gadhafi. He and other members of Congress will also
visit one of the unconventional weapons sites that Libya has agreed to
open to international inspectors.
The touchdown of Weldon's five-member bipartisan delegation aboard a U.S.
Navy plane in Tripoli Sunday morning will mark the first official visit to
Libya by American elected representatives since relations were severed in
Weldon, who serves as vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee,
called the symbolism of a U.S. military craft entering Libyan airspace
"significant," noting the 1986 nighttime bombing by F-111 Aardvarks ordered
by President Reagan.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) arranged to lead a congressional delegation to Tripoli during his Jan. 13 meeting in London with Saif Islam, left, the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi
Photo courtesy of Rep. Curt Weldon office
He plans to arrive with Gadhafi's son, Saif Islam, the heir apparent, who
played a key role in arranging the meeting. "What I want to reinforce to
Gadhafi, with a face-to-face meeting with a U.S. plane landing on the tarmac
in Tripoli, is that 'you've taken the first step,'" Weldon told The Hill.
He continued: "You've taken the first step in renouncing your nuclear
weapons program and your weapons of mass destruction. We're here to say
thank you and to acknowledge that and to see some of that evidence."
Weldon will be accompanied by Democratic Reps.. Solomon Ortiz (Texas),
Steve Israel (NY), and Rodney Alexander (La.), along with Republican
Reps. Candice Miller (Mich.) and Mark Souder (Ind.). The group will also
visit Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Weldon-led trip may eclipse another planned congressional visit to the
North African nation by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the ranking member on
the House International Relations Committee. Lantos, who had been planning
his own trip for over a year and was working in conjunction with the Bush
administration, was scheduled to leave Friday evening on a commercial
flight, on a trip that had been sanctioned by the departments of State and
Treasury, said a Lantos aide.
But it looked unlikely yesterday that Lantos would arrive before the Weldon
group. Lantos is still planning to leave this Friday, though he has a
contingency plan to leave later if necessary.
"We had an indication that the Libyan government is handling a number of
foreign visitors this weekend, including the visit of some inspectors," said
the aide. The aide dismissed any suggestion that there's a race between
Weldon and Lantos as to who gets to Libya.
But another congressional aide speculated that Weldon, with his forceful
personality and extensive if unorthodox foreign contacts, was able to ensure
that he and his delegation would be the first to meet Gadhafi.
"I would encourage other members to go," said Weldon. "I support them
and I will tell them to let Tom Lantos in. Tom's a very respected member,"
Weldon continued. "I'd like to leave tomorrow, but the Navy told us a plane
wasn't available until Saturday."
Some of Weldon's previous foreign trips have run him afoul of the
administration. In October, the White House denied him a military plane to
travel to North Korea, an impediment Weldon then blamed on National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. "I can tell you that the NSC is totally
aware of the [Libya] trip," said Weldon. "They will never probably say
they are supporting it; that's always the case," he said.
Weldon's backdoor diplomacy with Libya was facilitated through his contacts
with oil executives through his honorary chairmanship of International
Energy Advisory Council (IEAC) as well as through his relationship with
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
For several months before the announcement by President Bush that Libya had
agreed to inspections of its unconventional and possibly nuclear programs,
leaders in Tripoli had been seeking advice from their counterparts in the
Ukraine over how the former Soviet satellite had dismantled its nuclear
capability at the end of the Cold War. In those high-level conversations
between the Ukrainians and the Libyans, Weldon's name was mentioned to
Gadhafi as a possible entry point to Republicans in Washington.
Through a contact on the IEAC, Weldon finally arranged a meeting with
Gadhafi's second son, Saif Islam, 34, currently a doctoral candidate at the
London School of Economics.
While a potential trip to Libya was nearly one year in the planning, Weldon
said it quickly came together after a three-hour dinner with Saif Islam at
London's Four Seasons Hotel on Jan. 13, eight days ago.
During the meal, Saif Islam pulled out his cell phone, called his father and
relayed the congressman's strong interest in verifying Libya's declared
intention to rid itself of its unconventional weapons programs.
Saif Islam hung up and told Weldon that his father would welcome him,
Weldon said. "My goal is to let them know that the president sets our
foreign policy with the secretary of state and that we're not there to speak
on behalf of the country," Weldon told The Hill.
"But if Gadhafi continues what he's doing, which is being very well
received. Then we in the Congress, in both parties, are prepared to look at
ideas to bring their universities together with our universities, to bring
our NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] with theirs, on environmental
issues and health care issues," he said.
Earlier this month, the White House said that sanctions against Libya will
remain in place but promised to take "tangible steps" if Tripoli addresses
U.S. concerns on weapons of mass destruction.
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