WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to visit Libya this week, part of a dramatic turnaround in U.S. relations with the former pariah nation. No U.S. secretary of state has visited Libya in more than a half-century.
Rice launches a four-nation tour of North Africa in Tripoli on Friday, meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and other top officials in what the State Department is calling a landmark trip that will symbolize the opening of a new era in ties between the United States and the oil-rich country.
"It's a historic stop," spokesman Sean McCormack said, noting that Rice will be the first secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953 and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit since then-Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957.
"In that period of time, we've had a man land on the moon, the Internet, the Berlin Wall fall, and we've had 10 U.S. presidents."
Rice's visit comes amid a surge in interest from U.S. firms, particularly in the energy sector, to do business in Libya, where European companies have had much greater access in recent years. Libya's proven oil reserves are the ninth largest in the world, close to 39-billion barrels, and vast areas remain unexplored for new deposits.
Long deemed a state sponsor of terrorism and targeted by U.S. airstrikes in 1986, Libya began to redeem itself in 2003 when Gadhafi, whom President Ronald Reagan once famously termed the "mad dog of the Middle East," abandoned weapons of mass destruction programs, renounced terrorism and began moves to compensate the families of victims of Libyan-linked attacks.
Libya is expected to soon begin paying hundreds of millions of dollars into a special fund that will distribute payments to the families of victims from the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the 1986 bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin.
All 269 passengers and crew, including 180 Americans, on board the Pan Am flight and 11 people on the ground were killed at Lockerbie. Three people, including two American soldiers, were killed and 230 wounded in the disco attack, which prompted Reagan to order the airstrikes on targets in Tripoli and Benghazi that Libyans say killed 41 people, including Gadhafi's adopted daughter.
Some families of U.S. victims' relatives object to Rice's planned visit, arguing it will give Gadhafi international legitimacy at a time when they question whether Libya has accepted full responsibility for the attacks.
"It is absolutely horrible beyond belief that Condoleezza Rice will go and meet with the murderer of my child," said Susan Cohen, whose daughter, Theodora, was a passenger on Pan Am flight 103. "There is no change, this is the same old Moammar we're talking about."
McCormack said Rice and other officials understood such concerns but stressed that the settlement was important.
"That, by no means, brings back those people that were lost," he said. "But it does provide some measure of closure for those family members and those friends of people who were lost in these acts of terror."