About-face for Berlusconi, who feted Qadhafi

Published Aug 26, 2011 11:28am

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, center right, and Mahmoud Jibril, deputy chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, during their meeting at the prefecture building in Milan, Italy, Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011. The head of Libya's rebel Cabinet arrived in Italy during an European diplomatic tour in which he seeks support in its attempts to have billions of dollars in frozen funds released. - AP Photo

MILAN: Almost exactly a year ago, Silvio Berlusconi was throwing a party for his ''friend'' Muammar Qadhafi replete with Bedouin riders and a lavish dinner. On Thursday, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the head of the Libyan rebel Cabinet, offering his best wishes and announcing the release of frozen assets.

Other leaders have had turnarounds on Libya, but the Italian premier is unique among his European peers in having such a cozy relationship with Qadhafi – and performing such a remarkable about-face.

The two have dined together and exchanged gifts. In one notorious incident last year, Berlusconi kissed Qadhafi's hand at a summit. And when the world rushed to condemn the Libyan's bloody crackdown on protests in February, Berlusconi held back – saying Qadhafi was too busy to be bothered.

It makes the sight of Berlusconi opening his arms to Mahmoud Jibril at a government office in Milan all more surreal. Berlusconi declared Thursday that Italy plans to release (euro) 350 million ($505 million) in frozen Libyan assets and expressed his hope for a successful transition to democracy.

''We have expressed to Prime Minister Jibril the best wishes of the Italian people for the very tough work that awaits him and his collaborators to transform Libya into a real democracy,'' Berlusconi said.

At the end of the joint press conference, Berlusconi shook Jibril's hand firmly, looking him straight in the eye, and guided him outside.

Opposition politicians marveled at the turnaround.

''After having kissed a hand dripping with blood, now he should kiss the hand representing those whose blood was shed,'' lawmaker Italo Bocchino said.

The two countries share a long and complicated history.

Italy was Libya's colonial ruler in fascist times and went on to develop into Libya's largest trading partner as old resentments matured into mutually beneficial economic ties – worth (euro) 11 billion before trade was halted in February with the outbreak of civil war.

Italy's islands are just a few hundred kilometers (miles) from Libya's shores. Rome has relied on Qadhafi to keep away waves of boat people escaping conflict or poverty, and is dependent on the Arab country's oil.

Business ties were often greased at such extravaganzas such as Berlusconi's soiree last August 30. Among the hundreds of guests at the grounds of a paramilitary barracks in Rome were captains of Italian banking and industry, including the then-CEO of Unicredit, Italy's largest bank, which in August last year won the first international license to operate in Libya.

To make his honored guest feel at home, Berlusconi laid on some thrilling entertainment: Bedouin riders on 30 Libyan thoroughbreds flown in from the North African country thundered across the field in an evening that stretched into the early hours.

Amid such hospitality, Qadhafi has sometimes been an irascible guest.

In 2009, the colonel, who early in his regime kicked Italian residents out of Libya, virtually thumbed his nose at the Berlusconi government when he stepped off a plane in Rome wearing a photo pinned to his uniform of a Libyan national hero killed by Italian colonial authorities.

None of that got into the way of the blossoming relationship between Berlusconi and Qadhafi. But after initial hesitation, Berlusconi – under pressure from allies – was drawn into the Libya conflict and reversed his earlier refusal to take part in NATO bombing raids.

Berlusconi was clearly uncomfortable with the move. During a wide-ranging conversations with foreign journalists in April, he conceded that Italy's involvement with the NATO operations was difficult for him.

''I accepted despite the personal difficulties that this decision entailed for me,'' Berlusconi said. ''At one point I even thought it was my duty to resign,'' he said, adding that ''everybody asked me not to.''

Berlusconi was certainly not alone in seeing the benefits of rapprochement with the oil-rich nation after Qadhafi overcame his pariah status by giving up the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and renouncing support for terrorism.

Others included former British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. France's Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the first to take military action this spring, gave Qadhafi a royal welcome in Paris in December 2007, the first such visit since Qadhafi's falling out with the West in the 1980s.

Qadhafi stayed at the official guest residence near the presidential Elysee Palace, pitching a Bedouin tent in the elegant gardens. His visit clinched contracts worth billions of dollars for French business. Government officials defended the warm welcome for Qadhafi as a way to encourage states that show signs of moving away from terrorism.

While Sarkozy welcomed him into the Elysee Palace, dozens of lawmakers boycotted a session at the National Assembly parliament building.

This year, Sarkozy fiercely and swiftly turned against Qadhafi. France was the first country to recognize the opposition government and the first to fire airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces.

Berlusconi makes personal contacts a hallmark of his diplomacy, including hosting Russian leader Vladimir Putin at his villa on Sardinia's posh coast. During Gadhafi's sojourn in Rome last summer, some 200 aspiring models were recruited for a soiree in which the Libyan lectured them on Islam and distribute copies of the Quran.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Tuesday that he expects the rebels to honor all business contracts with Italian firms.

"They have committed to honor all of the contracts, also those of Italian businesses, that were signed by Libya. They weren't contracts with Gadhafi," Frattini told RAI state radio.

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