When Muammar Gaddafi comes to town, the first questions facing his hosts is where to pitch his tent. Having watched the stir caused in Paris and Moscow last year by the Libyan leader pitching a Bedouin-style portable chateau in the heart of each capital, the authorities in Rome were well prepared for the four-day visit of the Colonel and his retinue of 300. He was provided with a breezy campsite in the sprawling hillside Villa Doria Pamphili park.
Of course, locals were far from happy about the security requirements of Gaddafi’s tent camp necessitating the closure of much of the Eternal City’s rolling green space just as summer heats up. “It’s folly,” said Rome resident Donatella Gentili, 40, after being turned away from her daily jogging workout at the park.
The Libyan leader’s first official visit to the capital of the country that once colonized his own was complicated by more than just his unusual accommodations. He had come in part to acknowledge a $5 billion reparation deal concluded last year, intended to close the book on Italy’s colonial legacy in Libya. But Gaddafi promptly reopened old wounds upon landing on Wednesday, stepping onto the tarmac at Ciampino airport wearing a photograph pinned to his uniform of guerrilla leader Omar al-Mukhta, the nationalist leader hanged by Italian forces in 1931 and memorialized by Anthony Quinn who portrayed him the 1981 movie Lion of the Desert.
The Libyan leader declared that the execution of the rebel leader had been, for Libyans, “like the crucifixion of Christ for Christians.”
Chaperoned by the so-called “Amazons,” a group of several dozen well-outfitted female bodyguards from Tripoli, his provocative history lesson launched what could be dubbed Gaddafi’s “ladies and lecture” tour of the Italian capital. Friday’s featured event was a meeting he had expressly requested with 700 Italian women who work in business, entertainment and cultural enterprises. He declared the need for a “worldwide female revolution,” adding that women in the Arab world were often “treated like furniture.” Gaddafi’s surprisingly respectful overtures to Italian women come as his host, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is mired in controversy after his wife declared her intentions to divorce the 72-year-old billionaire, publicly alleging that he “frequents underage females.”
Berlusconi, who looked remarkably sober alongside his extravagantly outfitted counterpart, has prided himself on working out key deals including the reparations agreement, access to Libyan oil resources, and joint efforts to combat illegal immigration with the often unpredictable Gaddafi. The two traded gifts of jewelry and silver, and Gaddafi declared that Berlusconi would make a great Libyan president.
But not all Italians agree that Gaddafi’s 2003 decision to openly denounce terrorism and abandon his country’s quest for weapons of mass destruction make him worthy of the red-carpet treatment. Demonstrators protesting against Gaddafi’s record on human rights clashed briefly Thursday with police outside of La Sapienza University, where the Libyan addressed students and faculty. A planned address in the Italian Senate chambers was moved to a less prestigious setting, following similar complaints by opposition politicians.
At both appearances, the Libyan leader offered controversial views. He condemned terrorism, but urged dialogue with its perpetrators to “understand acts of terrorism.” And he couldn’t resist taking a dig at the U.S. “What’s the difference between the U.S. airstrikes on our homes and bin Laden’s actions,” he said, comparing 9/11 to U.S. attacks on Libya in 1986, which killed 41 people including Gaddafi’s adopted daughter, following a terror attack that killed three American soldiers at a nightclub in Germany.
On Friday, president of Italy’s parliament Gianfranco Fini waited two hours for Gaddafi to show up for a roundtable, before indignantly calling off the encounter. “There is no justification,” Fini said. “You just don’t do this.” Gaddafi strikes camp on Saturday, the day when, according to initial reports, he had hoped to meet with official representatives of the exiled community of Libyan Jews, to discuss redress for the losses they suffered when they were forced to leave Libya in 1967. Perhaps it was because there have been no Jews in Libya for 42 years that the Colonel appears to have been unaware that observant Jews don’t take meetings on the Sabbath.
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