Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain announced the surprise agreement yesterday afternoon, followed by President Bush, who declared it "a development of great importance in our continuing effort to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
Officials in London and Washington portrayed the news -- the culmination of nine months of secret diplomacy initiated by Libya around the time the US invaded Iraq -- as a direct result of the two-year-old war on terrorism. Libya made the announcement just six days after the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and one day after Iran's agreement to allow unrestricted nuclear weapons inspections.
"All of these actions by the United States and our allies have sent an unmistakable message to regimes that seek or possess weapons of mass destruction," Bush said in a speech at the White House late yesterday afternoon. "Those weapons do not bring influence or prestige. They bring isolation and otherwise unwelcome consequences."
The president continued: "Another message should be equally clear: Leaders who abandon the pursuit of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them will find an open path to better relations with the United States and other free nations."
As part of the agreement, Libya pledged to disclose all its weapons of mass destruction and related programs and to open the country to international inspectors to oversee their elimination.
While it was previously known that Libya had mustard gas and other chemical or biological agents, Britain said Libya had been close to making a nuclear bomb. US officials said last night that Libya's nuclear program was further advanced than initially estimated.
Libya made the pledges following a series of steps in the past few years to gain international acceptance. Khadafy has sounded especially contrite since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, describing himself as an ally in the fight to end terror.
In August, Libya officially accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and reached a settlement to pay victims' families worth billions of dollars. Foreign policy analysts viewed the settlement as a sign that further concessions could come.
Yesterday, in a statement released by the Libyan government, Khadafy called the agreement a "wise decision" to end the weapons program -- which included chemical weapons, as well as a degree of Libya's cooperation with North Korea to develop scud missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.
Libya "plays an international role in building a world free of weapons of mass destruction and all sorts of terrorism," Khadafy said, according to the official Jana news agency. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement confirming that it had decided "on its own free will to . . . completely eliminate internationally banned weapons."
Blair, a close US ally who has suffered domestically for his strong support of the war in Iraq, called it a victory for diplomacy -- and proof that military force is truly reserved as a last resort. Blair made the announcement first, part of a coordinated effort with the White House to bolster its closest ally in Europe.
"Today's announcement shows that we can fight this menace through more than purely military means, that we can defeat it peacefully if countries are prepared, in good faith, to work with the international community to dismantle such weapons," Blair said.
According to officials familiar with the clandestine negotiations, Libya had made a series of admissions about its weapons program in the past nine months. It admitted to uranium-enrichment projects that were intended to support a nuclear weapons program and gave US and British experts who went to Libya access to specialized nuclear equipment and related documents.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters last night on the condition of anonymity, said that while the reported chemical weapons matched up with US and British intelligence estimates, "on the nuclear side . . . my understanding is that they did have a much further advanced program, including centrifuges."
Libyan officials also showed US and British experts what the administration official described as "a significant quantity of mustard, a chemical agent" that was produced in Rabta more than a decade ago. They also displayed aerial bombs designed to be filled with mustard agent on short notice and dual-use facilities -- which appear to have a civilian purpose, but could be used to produce biological weapons.
Libya, the US official said, contacted Britain in mid-March to explore the possibility of working with London and Washington to disclose aspects of its weapons of mass destruction programs.
That timing coincides almost precisely with the start of the war in Iraq, which began March 19.
Asked whether the Iraq invasion had a direct impact on Khadafy's actions, the administration official said, "I can't imagine that Iraq went unnoticed by the Libyan leadership."
Bush did not lift US sanctions against Libya -- which is also a forbidden travel destination for US citizens -- but held out that possibility, as well as the hope that Libya could earn US assistance if the dismantlement is complete.
"As Libya becomes a more peaceful nation, it can become a source of stability in Africa and the Middle East. Should Libya pursue internal reform, America will be ready to help its people to build a more free and prosperous country," Bush said.
But the sudden turn of events also raised potentially troubling questions for Bush and Blair about why Libya was allowed to keep its illegal weapons programs for so long and why the Bush administration would allow international inspectors in Libya but not in Iraq.
Foreign policy specialists and former Clinton administration officials cautioned against giving the White House too much credit for the deal, saying it followed a pattern of Libyan moves dating back at least five years.
"To link this to Iraq would be to fall into the trap of the White House spin operation," said James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state under Clinton and now an aide to retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, a Democratic presidential candidate.
There was a mixed response from other Democrats, who pointed out the administration's different approaches toward Libya and Iraq.
"American soldiers are now dying daily in Iraq because the United States deemed the [International Atomic Energy Agency's] search for weapons of mass destruction to be totally unworthy of support," US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden said. "Now, suddenly, President Bush is leaning on the same anytime-anywhere IAEA inspections to police Libya. The fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq has certainly vindicated the IAEA in the eyes of the world. Perhaps the president is now admitting, without saying so, that he was wrong about the IAEA's ability to conduct effective weapons inspections. Why else would he rely on these inspectors now?" Markey said.
But Republicans and White House officials argued that only after watching the former Iraqi leader suffer the consequences of noncompliance did Khadafy decide to cooperate rather than face a similar threat.
"It's a diplomatic victory, and it's a victory for allied cooperation," said the US official who briefed reporters.
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