CAIRO, Egypt – With change building in other parts of the Middle East, exiled opposition leaders want to bring some of that momentum to Libya and one of the region's most entrenched leaders, Moammar Gadhafi (search).
Gadhafi's opponents, battered by political division and weakened by long exile, are gathering for the first time this weekend in London — clearly inspired by other changes that previously seemed unimaginable, like the fall of Iraq's Saddam Hussein (search) and the end of Syria's military domination in Lebanon.
They say they are also seeking help from the United States and others in removing Gadhafi, who is the longest-serving Arab leader, running his country of 5 million people with an iron fist since a 1969 military coup.
"We want to come out with one clear message — that Gadhafi can no longer stay in power," said Fayez Jibril of the Libyan National Salvation Front. The first step will be to ask the Libyan leader to resign, Jibril said.
"If he won't, then we have to discuss other options," he said. The organizers say they don't foresee armed action, only political pressure.
The conference, being held Saturday and Sunday with some 300 participants expected, will propose plans for a transition to democracy within two years of Gadhafi's ouster. A transitional governing council would be installed, then elections held for an interim national assembly to draft a new constitution.
But first they have to get Gadhafi out. And there is little sign they're any closer than they have been over the past three decades.
The West — including the United States, which long denounced Gadhafi as a pariah — shows little interest in helping push him out, especially as the Libyan leader is coaxing international business in to invest and help revamp the ruined Libyan economy, said Libyan political analyst Mahmoud Shamam.
"Libya is geographically and politically part of this area and it is only natural that the opposition forces will benefit from the blowing wind of change," he said. "But Western vested interests and hypocrisy might make that difficult."
The Salvation Front, the largest and oldest opposition group, staged a rebellion against Gadhafi for years from Chad with backing from the CIA and others. But the uprising was crushed when Libya sent troops into the neighboring nation in the early 1980s.
Since then, there has been little armed threat to his regime. Gadhafi cracked down on Islamic fundamentalists in 1997 after several militant attacks in Libya.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Libya's main opposition Islamic group, was not invited to the London conference. Some opposition groups worry about Islamic fundamentalist influence if Gadhafi is out of the picture.
The participants in the London gathering include Jibril's Salvation Front (search), monarchists and exiled writers and academics. British authorities agreed to provide extra security for fear that Libyan intelligence agents might disturb the meeting, organizers said.
The United States has been stepping up pressure on Mideast regimes to reform. But its attention has been more on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed the case during a regional tour this week, but she did not mention Libya.
The Libyan leader has scoffed at attempts by Washington to encourage reforms.
"What does reform mean? It means that we are corrupt. They are telling us that we are corrupt and we are children and we have no laws," Gadhafi told an Arab summit in March.
But he has radically improved his image and reduced Libya's isolation by agreeing to compensation to families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and then giving up to the United States what had been a secret nuclear, biological and chemical weapons program in 2003.
He met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac — and last month with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs David Welch on efforts to improve relations with Washington.
Those contacts anger the opposition. "We want to know if the world is interested in doing business with Gadhafi or in Libyans' human rights," said Jibril.