Stubborn Kadafi rejected reforms as regime fell

Seif Islam Kadafi was determined to succeed his father, Moammar Kadafi, and resisted efforts to reach a compromise with rebels, a former Libyan deputy foreign minister said. (Imed Lamloum / AFP/Getty Images)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya—

As Moammar Kadafi’s four decades in power spiraled to an end, loyalists who feared a ruinous finale secretly pushed for last-minute reforms that included Kadafi relinquishing power, withdrawing troops from contested cities and cutting a deal with rebel leaders.

But any serious effort to compromise ran head-on into Kadafi’s stubbornness, his apparent failure to recognize the imminent peril and the desire of his son, Seif Islam, to inherit his father’s position, according to one prominent insider.

“It was greed of power, I think,” said Khaled Kaim, Libya’s former deputy foreign minister, who provided an account of the last weeks of Kadafi’s rule in an interview at a rebel military barracks. “By July, he [Kadafi] started believing only himself…. He became paranoid.”

Kaim was one of the dying regime’s most public faces, and his is among the first accounts of what was going on inside Kadafi’s highly secretive inner circle as it faced rebel advances and airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The maneuvering among those close to Kadafi appears to have continued after the sudden rebel triumph in Tripoli sent the deposed leader, his family and many associates scrambling for safe haven. Only now, they’re trying to save themselves.

On Sunday, the government of Libya’s southern neighbor Niger disclosed that Saadi Kadafi, a son known for his business ventures and passion for soccer, had arrived there. Niger already hosts several prominent Kadafi loyalists, including Mansour Dao, who headed Kadafi’s security brigades. Whether Niger is a prospective destination for Kadafi and other sons remains a question.

Some critics say Kaim is just trying to save his hide, portraying himself as a moderate within Kadafi’s crumbling regime and cynically switching sides after the fall of Tripoli. He insists he has no blood on his hands, and he has urged pro-Kadafi holdouts in the city of Bani Walid and elsewhere to stop fighting and embrace the new order.

He is being held at a military base after being detained at a relative’s home last week. His fate and that of other officials in Kadafi’s government are still undecided. The rebels lack a fully functioning government and court system.

“He should be arrested; he incited hatred,” said one official close to the Transitional National Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the uncertainty surrounding Kaim’s future.

The interview with Kaim, conducted in English, was monitored on and off by rebel commanders with limited English.

Kaim said that Kadafi’s defiant exhortations against “crusader” aggressors and traitorous “rats” masked a sense of impending doom among desperate appointees secretly pushing for reforms and a deal with the rebel command. Numerous high-level defections were a symptom of the turmoil within.

“These people did not want to change,” Kaim said, naming Kadafi, Seif Islam, intelligence chief Abdullah Sanoussi, Prime Minister Baghdadi Ali Mahmoudi and Kadafi spokesman Musa Ibrahim, with whom Kaim says he often clashed. All are now on the run.

The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Kadafi, Seif Islam and Sanoussi for crimes allegedly committed during Kadafi’s effort to crush the protest movement.

During Kadafi’s last months in power, the bespectacled Kaim was a fixture at the Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists were based. He was chatty and approachable. The 44-year-old engineer, who had worked for the Foreign Ministry for six years, spoke excellent English. He defended Kadafi and dismissed the possibility that “armed groups” could topple him.

He frequently linked the rebels to Al Qaeda, as did Kadafi, but refrained from some of the more extreme polemic attacks on them.

Now, Kaim says he is convinced that Islamist elements among the rebels have been able to “grow up intellectually” and he says he believes their statements urging the establishment of a democratic and secular government are genuine.

When mass protests broke out in Libya on Feb. 17, Kaim said, he was initially hopeful that some kind of accommodation could be reached with the demonstrators. Kadafi made a speech on March 2 that, in Kaim’s view, hinted at the possibility of reconciliation, though others saw the address as a denial of the protest moment.

“We had the chance to have a peaceful transition,” Kaim said, adding that many in the Foreign Ministry shared that view.

Moderates working behind the scenes for such a transition, Kaim said, included then-Foreign Minister Musa Kusa, a longtime Kadafi confidant who later defected to Britain.

“It was a chance for him [Kadafi] personally to side with his people after 42 years in control of the country, directly or indirectly,” Kaim said. “But I think the issue of succession was behind their being stubborn in dealing with people’s aspirations.”

Specifically, Kaim said Seif Islam was determined to succeed his father — and saw that opportunity slipping should the regime’s grip be loosened. “He was blocking peace,” Kaim said of Seif Islam. “He wanted power.”

Some officials secretly proposed a transitional government that would move Kadafi to the sidelines. Another proposal, Kaim said, would have withdrawn the military from cities experiencing protests and set up an interim administration in coordination with the rebel leadership. Kaim said he assumed some of the plans were brought to the “higher authority,” but Kadafi and his son rejected them.

Many officials were stunned that Kadafi rejected a July offer from Europe that would have allowed him to remain in Libya, albeit not in power.

One envoy met with dissidents in Paris in a bid to craft a solution. Under another plan, Kadafi would have pledged to keep his troops out of Benghazi, the eastern city that became rebel headquarters.

Western diplomats were apprised of the plan and approved of it, Kaim said. But Kadafi went ahead with an attack to take back Benghazi. U.S., French and British warplanes went into action, destroying a convoy of Kadafi’s armored vehicles.

By the end of March, Kaim said, he didn’t see a way out. He wanted to defect, he said, but was prevented from leaving the country. Months of fighting remained, but Kadafi’s years in power were in effect over.