WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday she hopes to travel soon to Libya for a trip that would mark full U.S. diplomatic acceptance of the North African country after decades of pariah status.
Rice said she had not set any dates for the visit, which comes after Libya's release this week of six foreign medical workers who had been imprisoned there for more than eight years. She said Libya had taken great strides to reintegrate itself into the international community.
"Libya made an important strategic decision to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction," she said. "As a result it has put itself on a path that is leading to investment in Libya by Western companies, which could not invest there before. I know that American companies are very interested in working in Libya.
"I sincerely hope that I will be able to visit there soon," Rice said in an interview with Radio Sawa, a U.S.-funded Arabic-language broadcaster.
She noted that President Bush had recently nominated a new U.S. ambassador to Libya, fulfilling pledges Washington made after Tripoli accepted responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing and agreed to pay restitution, and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi dismantled his weapons of mass destruction programs.
Those steps earned Libya a reprieve from U.N., U.S. and European sanctions as well as removal from the State Department's blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.
Bush's ambassadorial nomination, however, has met resistance from some in Congress who have vowed to block it until Libya pays the last installment of compensation to the families of the 270 people killed when Pan Am flight 103 was bombed and settles claims related to the bombing of a Berlin disco in which several U.S. servicemen were killed.
It was not immediately clear when Rice might visit Libya, although there has been speculation since the five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian medic were freed on Tuesday that she might make the trip in early September.
But two State Department officials downplayed the chances of the trip coming that soon, given Rice's existing travel plans, the mid-September release of a progress report on Bush's Iraq strategy, and the annual U.N. General Assembly due to begin in the third week of that month.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal diplomatic planning, said it was more likely that a visit to Libya would take place in October.
Still, just the contemplation of such a trip would be a remarkable turnaround for Libya, which has long struggled with international isolation.
If and when she goes, Rice would be the first secretary of state to visit Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953, according to the State Department historian's office.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte went to Tripoli in April mainly to discuss the situation in neighboring Sudan's troubled Darfur region, and earlier this month Bush sent White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Frago Townsend to Libya to hand-deliver a letter calling on Gadhafi to step up cooperation in battling extremist violence.
Libya has been attempting for years to end its status as a pariah as it seeks international help to renovate its long-decrepit economy. Libyan officials argued that with the release of the medics, the country's slate with the outside world is clean.
Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, Libya was a pariah by Washington view. It was designated a state sponsor of terrorism, made the target of U.S. airstrikes ordered by President Reagan in 1986, and subject to penalties barring American companies from doing business there.
Since 2003, international investment has increased in Libya's oil sector — its only considerable industry, providing most of its gross domestic product of nearly $75 billion.