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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December 2003, 21:11 GMT
Slow and painful change for Libya
The BBC's Peter Biles
By Peter Biles
BBC world affairs correspondent in Tripoli, Libya

Libyans walk under a portrait of Col Gaddafi
The watchful eyes of Col Gaddafi follow Libyans
The traffic moves erratically across Martyrs' Square in the centre of Tripoli, but always under the strict eye of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose face stares down from a large coloured mural.

Portraits of the Libyan leader can be found on almost every street in the centre of the capital.

The unpredictable Col Gaddafi has ruled this country, unchallenged, for 34 years, in spite of Libya's international isolation.

Now though, this former pariah state is returning to the international fold, throwing open its doors to UN nuclear inspectors, and promising to scrap all illegal weapons programmes.

We thought this would make us look better in the eyes of the world and set an example for others in the Middle East to follow, especially Israel
Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem
This rapprochement with the West has been a slow and often painful process for Col Gaddafi.

Libya's Prime Minister, Shukri Ghanem, who is one of the acceptable faces of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (the country's official name), says there was a lengthy internal debate about Libya's decision to get rid of its weapons programmes.

"We thought this would make us look better in the eyes of the world and set an example for others in the Middle East to follow, especially Israel," he says.

Mr Ghanem denies that Libya acted under pressure because of America's invasion of Iraq.

"Weapons of mass destruction are very costly. It's better that we concentrate on our economic development," he argues.

Encouraged

The head of the UN's nuclear agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who visited Tripoli for the first time this week, says he was encouraged by Libya's full co-operation.

IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei
The IAEA will monitor Libyan commitments closely
Dr ElBaradei was taken to four sites near the capital, and shown boxed, dismantled equipment, relevant to a uranium enrichment programme.

On the basis of this initial inspection, he concluded that Libya had not enriched any uranium and was "several years away from developing a nuclear weapon".

One Western diplomat said he did not believe Libya was trying to mislead the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency during this preliminary assessment, but he was certain there was more to Libya's nuclear weapons programme.

"Uranium enrichment was going ahead. Libya didn't have a nuclear weapon, but they were well on their way," the diplomat said.

Libya's commitment to disarm will be closely monitored.

United Nations sanctions were lifted last September, but US sanctions remain.

If Libya continues to co-operate with the international community, the Bush administration is expected to lift the sanctions and remove Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Modernisation

Prime Minister Ghanem says if the US sanctions are scrapped, it will allow American companies to return to Libya, and help the country to acquire modern hi-tech equipment needed to modernise its oil industry.

It'll be good for my business - I'll be able to import things more cheaply
Shop-keeper Hassan al-Darrat
Nowhere is Libya's era of isolation more evident than in the old market near the Tripoli waterfront.

The cobweb-strewn shops are full of gold and silver jewellery, and thousands of antiques, but the foreign tourists are few in number.

Shop-keeper Hassan al-Darrat is eagerly anticipating the lifting of the American sanctions.

"It means we'll open up to the world. It'll be good for my business. I'll be able to import things more cheaply," he says.

For a country that has always been so tightly controlled, Libya's new policy of openness is almost bewildering.

Libya however, has been a willing partner in the war on terror, and has done almost everything asked of it by the international community over the past couple of years, as relations with the West have slowly normalised.

The verdict is: "So far, so good".


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