Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Saturday, 13 June 2009 13:56 UK

Libyan leader plays to the gallery

Col Gaddafi at the end of a meeting with prominent Italian women
A chic audience of top women met the colonel

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been paying his first visit to Italy, his country's former colonial ruler and now its biggest trading partner. As the BBC's David Willey reports, the image he leaves behind in Rome may not be quite what he would have wished.

Imagine the scene. A thousand Italian women in high heels, wearing their smartest outfits, dressed to kill in expensive pant suits and creations of the crème de la crème of Milan fashion houses, gathered in a state of high excitement at Rome's new concert hall.

Col Gaddafi has been telling Italians what to think for three days now about everything you can imagine

Women business leaders joined other women who had risen to prominence in the fields of politics and culture to meet the Libyan leader at the invitation of Italy's glamorous Minister of Equal Opportunity, Mara Carfagna, a former beauty queen.

They heard Colonel Gaddafi, who wore Bedouin robes, and his flat-topped hat at a jaunty angle, expound his views on the status of women in Africa and Europe.

He went on in Arabic for what seemed like ages, a translator by his side, but his audience seemed to lap up his words even though they were delivered in a low mumble most of the time.

There were frequent cheers and only occasional isolated booing.

Col Gaddafi blows kisses to audience in Rome
The Libyan leader blows kisses to the audience of women

The chic audience loved it when the colonel described the plight of many women in the Arab world, who, he said, are sometimes treated like a piece of furniture that you can change when you want and no-one will ask you the reason why.

He claimed there is now absolute equality between men and women in Libya, but this aroused a few quizzical looks among his audience and he seemed less than convincing when he asserted that the reason why there are so many child soldiers in Africa is because of a breakdown in family values in the African continent.

Scuffles and embarrassment

Col Gaddafi has been telling Italians what to think for three days now about everything you can imagine, from the legacy of Fascism to why terrorists do what they do.

Protesters throws bucket of red liquid at police
Protesters came well equipped at Rome University

Standing at sunset on the balcony of Rome's Renaissance town hall facing the piazza designed by Michelangelo, he presented himself as a descendant of Septimius Severus, a 3rd Century AD Roman emperor born on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, in what was then a Roman and again - for a short period, 18 centuries later - an Italian colony.

He embarrassed his host, the right-wing Mayor Rome Giovanni Alemanno, by telling his audience that Italy should abolish all political parties and hand over power to the people, just as he has done in Libya.

"There would be no left right or centre," he said. "The party system is the abortion of democracy!"

"We don't need lessons on democracy from anyone!" the mayor fumed aftewards to local journalists.

At Rome University there were scuffles with police when students protested against the Libyan leader's human rights record, and against his agreement with the Berlusconi government to intercept illegal immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to enter the EU and send them back to Libya.

Captains of industry

In the palatial surroundings of the Renaissance palace on a wooded hillside overlooking the city used as a government hospitality centre, the colonel launched into a bitter attack against the United States and said the American bombing of Tripoli in 1986 - in which his own infant daughter was one of the victims - was every bit as bad as any act of terrorism by al-Qaeda.

Muammar Gaddafi and Giovanni Alemanno
Rome's mayor (R) was not impressed by some of his guest's comments

The colonel pitched his Bedouin tent in the spacious park surrounding the 17th Century villa which has been his temporary home in Rome.

There he's been entertaining captains of Italian industry and concluding deals for future Libyan investments in joint ventures with Italy. Over the next 20 years Italy has agreed to pay Libya $5bn in reparations for the misdeeds of 30 years of Italian colonial rule during the early years of the 20th Century.

And the Italians are going to build and pay for a super-highway along the Libyan shore of the Mediterranean linking Egypt with Tunisia.

'Fancy uniform'

But laying the ghosts of the past is not as easy as Colonel Gaddafi might have imagined when he arrived resplendent in a military uniform covered with medals and a large photograph of what we later learned was a Libyan resistance hero pinned to his breast pocket.

Muammar Gaddafi wore a carefully selected photo on arrival in Rome

The Libyan hero was called Omar Al Moktar, not a name familiar to contemporary Italians, but in Libya he is revered as a brave resistance fighter against Fascist colonial rule.

He was executed by the Italians in 1931 and was later the subject of a Hollywood film, financed by Colonel Gaddafi and starring Anthony Quinn. The film had never been shown in Italy until this month.

Colonel Gaddafi's fancy military uniform aroused some ironic comments - a parody of formal military dress more suitable for a traffic policeman, a band leader, or the ringmaster of an equestrian circus were some of the comparisons.

The image that the colonel leaves as he departs for home is not what he might have desired.

But he's already planning to return here next month to attend the G8 meeting and obviously finds his new friend Silvio Berlusconi a congenial and generous host.

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