Libya nuclear-free

December 23, 2003

THAT COL. Muammar el Kadafi would hold up Libya as a beacon in the fight to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction may strike many as preposterous. After all, Libya has spent decades fomenting terror and secretly dabbling in biological and chemical agents. But Mr. Kadafi's decision to abandon his pursuit of nuclear arms and unconventional weapons marks a significant step toward global disarmament. The degree to which his about-face is considered a model or a sham will be determined by his degree of candor and cooperation with international inspections.

In revealing Libya's nuclear weapons ambitions Friday, Mr. Kadafi was quoted by the government news agency as saying that he wanted to lead by example in helping rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. But we shouldn't forget that several factors reportedly led to Mr. Kadafi's decision to abandon his program, the byproduct of months of secret negotiations with Great Britain and the United States.

Seeking to dispel his rogue status in the community of nations and to lift international sanctions against Tripoli, Mr. Kadafi has sought to rehabilitate himself and his country in years past. After refusing to accept responsibility for the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Libya earlier this year agreed to pay $2.7 billion to victims' survivors. It previously turned over for trial two intelligence agents accused in the downing. The United Nations responded by lifting its economy-busting sanctions against the Kadafi regime.

U.S. sanctions, imposed since 1986, remain in place. That should change if Libya delivers a full accounting of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons projects and provides valuable information on other rogue nations. So far, the Bush administration appears impressed by Tripoli's response.

That response, which includes some facility inspections and sharing of data, has shown the extent to which Libya had advanced its weapons programs and deceived international inspectors. The scary revelations serve as a reminder that international inspectors and intelligence agents can provide only so much information on a nation's nuclear interests or capabilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency should press Tripoli for any other information that might expose the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, Iran or others.

The Libyan example, in the words of President Bush, shows that "old hostilities do not need to go on forever."

Although the White House has attributed Mr. Kadafi's decision in part to the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, diplomacy played a critical role in securing his commitment to forsake unconventional weapons. The outcome so far demonstrates the wisdom and value of taking a multipronged approach to nations involved in weapons of mass destruction.

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