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Time for serious nose-tweaking in Libya?

There's a lot of heavy breathing going on in Washington, and this time, at least, it doesn't have anything to do with sex.

What's got a lot of Bush administration people panting and sweating these days is Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan leader who was once featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine as the most dangerous man in the world.

Newsweek was exaggerating, of course, but it's almost certainly true that Gadhafi has been deeply involved in state-sponsored international terrorism over the years. Maybe even more important, he's had this annoying habit of tweaking the noses of American presidents every once in a while.

Now, if you can believe what various officials have been saying over the past week, the Bush administration is getting ready to do some nose-tweaking of its own with Gadhafi, serious nose-tweaking.

The United States already has gone after Gadhafi once _ a 1986 air strike on Tripoli that was little more than a thinly disguised assassination attempt. What triggered it was a determination in Washington that Libyan agents were involved in the bombing of a Berlin dance hall frequented by American servicemen.

At the time, accounts from Washington and Libya indicated that Gadhafi narrowly escaped death in the air strike and emerged from it a badly shaken man. Whatever the facts, American claims of Libyan-sponsored terrorism became far less insistent after that. The line in Washington was that Gadhafi had learned his lesson.

But now more than five years later, American officials are talking again as if Gadhafi is the devil incarnate, somebody who threatens not only his own region but the security of the United States, too.

The determination in Washington this time is that two of Gadhafi's top intelligence agents planted the time bomb that blew up a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.

The United States wants to get its hands on the two agents and put them on trial. Not surprisingly, Libya is refusing to turn them over despite a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month demanding their extradition.

Gadhafi is using every trick he can to duck the U.N. demand. There was even a report, apparently leaked by the government, that the two Libyan agents had disappeared from a jail where they were being held and had been assassinated.

Sensing Gadhafi's growing desperation, U.S. officials are pushing to get another Security Council resolution passed by the end of the month that would block all sales of military equipment to Libya, halt all commercial air traffic to and from Libya and prevent Libya's state airline from buying new equipment or spare parts.

Presumably, if the U.N. sanctions didn't work, Washington then would consider another air strike. As Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, put it last week: "If Libya fails to comply we'll consider all options open."

This isn't what you'd call subtle. Gadhafi _ no fool _ reacted on Friday by promising to hold public hearings on the extradition demands, an obvious ploy to buy time.

But Gadhafi's bag of tricks is only so big. Increasingly, it's beginning to look as if one day soon he'll either have to turn over the two agents for trial or face American-style justice himself on the wrong end of a cruise missile or fighter-bomber.

Some people in Washington _ at the State Department, in the intelligence agencies and at the White House _ are convinced that even more than having his nose tweaked, Gadhafi needs to have his head twisted off.

It's the prospect of finally doing this that has more than a few of them hyperventilating these days.

But there's a disturbing element in all this heavy breathing over Gadhafi.

Up until Iraq invaded Kuwait a year and a half ago, the Bush administration seemed convinced that the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland was the work of Iran and Syria. Libya wasn't even in the picture.

About the time President Bush started courting Syria to join the gulf war coalition against Iraq, we started hearing that maybe Syria wasn't involved in the Lockerbie bombing after all, that maybe it was really Washington's other bogeyman in the Middle East, Libya's Gadhafi.

Soon enough, with Syria on board not only for the gulf war but the Middle East peace talks, the word coming out of Washington was that Gadhafi was definitely the bad apple, definitely the one who had to be taught yet another lesson.

Maybe our intelligence agencies really did belatedly discover hard evidence implicating Gadhafi and letting Syria and Iran off the hook in the Lockerbie disaster. Maybe the timing with the gulf war and the Middle East peace talks was just a coincidence.

Maybe so, but I'm still not entirely convinced.