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Italian Colonialism, A Childhood Wound And The Origins Of Gaddafi’s Showdown With The West

Italian Colonialism, A Childhood Wound And The Origins Of Gaddafi’s Showdown With The West

The Libyan leader's lifelong grudge with Italy, and the Italian attempts to appease him, may help explain how Gaddafi sees the current conflict.

(AbodeOfChaos)

It all began with a scar, a sign left on the arm of a child who'd been playing with his cousins along a stretch of desert. That scar sealed the fate not just for a man, but for an entire people. Muammar Gaddafi was six years old when a mine exploded as he was playing with his cousins on a dusty patch of earth in the desert near his native city of Sirt. No one can tell when the soldiers of the colonial Italian Royal Army had buried it there. But that day, in 1948, the mine exploded. Two of Gaddafi's cousins died. Muammar's arm was wounded. He would never forget.

His story as a leader, and his long-lasting grudge, started that morning. That injustice engendered hatred, which later influenced political choices that so often seemed driven by pure emotion. And almost every time, Italy played a central role in these choices. Surely, there were geographical reasons, given that the two countries face each other on opposite sides of the Mediterranean. But mostly, Italy stood at the center of Gaddafi's politics because of his driving demand for compensation for that childhood wound, and for the country's colonial humiliation.

On July 21, 1970, a New Revolutionary Committee's decree was the first of these policies aimed at Italy. The committee was lead by a young and then still obscure military captain from Sirt, ordering the confiscation of property belonging to 20,000 Italian citizens who were still living and working in Libya after the coup d'etat. It also ordered their immediate expulsion. As quickly as they could, the Italians had to pack up their few remaining belongings.

To celebrate that expulsion, Gaddafi declared October 7 "The Day of Vendetta," a new, annual national holiday. Nevertheless, when Libya became an oil-exporting power, Italy reopened its embassy and tried to make peace. In 1911, European critics of the Italian colonial war in Libya dismissed the country as a "sandbox". Everyone would find out how wrong that view was in the 1950s, when oil was discovered. Italy could not ignore the business opportunities for Eni Spa, its national oil and gas conglomerate.

After the Yom Kippur war and the Arab oil embargo in 1973, oil became even more central for international business and geopolitics. As a consequence, Gaddafi increasingly tried to impose his worldview on the old colonial powers. His view was inspired by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser's Pan-Arabism, with dreams of a world lead by Arab countries and Africa. When terrorism became a strategy of the global revolution, Gaddafi financed groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Palestinian Black September Organization.

Italy was always in the background of his fanatic thirst for a new world shaped by the power of petrodollars. It had to face Gaddafi's pressure and his threats for revenge for the colonial past. Captured Sicilian fishermen were used as bargaining chips to gain freedom for the assassins of Libyan opposition's leader who had escaped to Italy.

On April 15 1986, after a Berlin discotheque bombing that killed American marines, President Ronald Reagan ordered bombings of Benghazi, Tripoli and Gaddafi's own personal compound. A mysterious phone call – which many believe came from then Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi – warned Gaddafi in time to save his life.

Thus began a new chapter in the alternating rapport of old grudges and neighborly relations. In 1986, Gaddafi unloaded two missiles on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. But by the beginning of the 2000s, he'd stopped supporting terrorism, and admitted Libya's responsibility for the attacks to Pan Am flight 103, in December 1988, and to the DC-10, UTA Flight 772, in September 1989.

In 1999, he received the first official visit to Tripoli by an Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema. In 2004, Europe Commission head Romano Prodi invited Gaddafi for an official visit to Brussels. That scar on the right arm of that child who played in the desert did not burn quite as much.

Only later, in Rome and Tripoli, Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi hugged each other, and Berlusconi even kissed Gaddafi's hand -- the peak of humiliation in a business oriented and shameless approach to foreign policy. Gaddafi had somehow managed to obtain a triumphal march on the road to Rome, only to now be back in his bunker launching new accusations of neo-colonialism, the scars of the past surfacing yet again.

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