Libyans celebrated their liberation with mass demonstrations in Benghazi yesterday, the 28th anniversary of another landmark event in Middle East history. On Sunday, 23 October 1983, at 6.22 a.m., a suicide bomber rammed a truck into the US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut Airport and detonated what FBI forensics specialists would later describe as the largest conventional explosion in history. Two hundred and forty-one American service personnel died. A similar assault in Beirut that morning killed 58 French troops. The perpetrators were undoubtedly members of the nascent Hizbullah movement.
The operatives who celebrated the attack on US and French forces that led to their departure from Lebanon a few months later are probably congratulating themselves on Muammar Gaddafi’s demise more than the gloating leaders in Paris and Washington. Gaddafi, who at one time or another alienated and befriended British, French, American and Arab leaders, never made headway with Hizbullah. The roots of their animosity were, as with most profound hatreds, personal. In August 1978, Gaddafi welcomed the leader of Lebanese Shiism, Imam Musa Sadr, and two colleagues on an official visit to Tripoli. Sadr was a force for reconciliation in Lebanon and had even gone on hunger strike to end the fighting. His allies were Christian and Muslim at a time when Gaddafi supported the Lebanese Muslim-Leftist-Palestinian alliance. Sadr disappeared shortly after seeing Gaddafi. Libyan officials insisted he had flown from Tripoli to Rome, but there was no record of his arrival in Italy. The question of what happened to him has since dominated relations between Lebanon’s Shia community and Libya. Hizbullah was one of the few movements resisting the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon that refused Gaddafi’s funding.
There have been countless rumours about Sadr’s fate. None has been confirmed. Last year, his son Sadreddine told the National News Agency in Beirut that his father and his two companions were alive in a Libyan prison. ‘We say it out loud,’ the Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said soon afterwards. ‘Imam Sadr and his two companions are being held in Libya and they should be released.’ Sadreddine Sadr did not reveal his sources, but early in this year’s revolt a Libyan opposition figure said that Sadr remained in Libyan custody. The prisons opened by the Transitional National Council have so far not produced the missing imam, who would now be 83.
Hizbullah’s opposition to Gaddafi set it at odds with its backers in Damascus, whose Baathist regime fostered friendly relations with the Libyan leader. It also put Hizbullah, for the past few months, in alliance with Nato. A Hizbullah decision made Lebanon the sponsor of the ‘no fly zone’ resolution at the United Nations on 15 March. Without that resolution, the Libyan uprising would not have succeeded. Gaddafi fell because he had antagonised his own people by killing, torturing or detaining so many of them, but his decision to make a Lebanese cleric disappear also played a part.
Hizbullah maintained its opposition to Gaddafi while the US, France and Britain welcomed him into the community of nations, bought his oil and supplied his armoury. The one consistent thread to western policy in Libya has nothing to do with who is in power, nods to democracy or missing imams. The country’s oil, with its low sulphur content and proximity to Europe, is among the most desirable in OPEC. Gaddafi was a 28-year-old captain (his co-conspirators later promoted him to colonel) in Libya’s 8000-man army when he seized power in September 1969 in a bloodless coup. In a memo sent to Henry Kissinger on 20 November 1969, National Security Council staff wrote:
Our present strategy is to seek to establish satisfactory relations with the new regime. The return to our balance of payments and the security of US investments in oil are considered our primary interests. We seek to retain our military facilities, but not at the expense of threatening our economic return.
The US alerted Gaddafi to a coup attempt, which the new leader thwarted. His gratitude was short-lived, as he forced both the US and UK to abandon their bases in the country and raised Libya’s share of its oil income, which enabled both the building of the infrastructure that today’s rebels are inheriting and the corruption of the dynastic state that Gaddafi imposed. When Tony Blair brought Gaddafi in from the cold after Lockerbie, the US rendered suspects to Libya for special treatment by experienced torturers. No one, except perhaps Hizbullah, comes out of this sordid saga well.