WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said Monday it will restore normal diplomatic relations with Libya for the first time in over a quarter century after deciding to remove Moammar Gadhafi’s country from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“We are taking these actions in recognition of Libya's continued commitment to its renunciation of terrorism and the excellent cooperation Libya has provided to the United States and other members of the international community in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement.
As part of the process, the United States will open an embassy in Libya, upgrading the current U.S. liaison office in Tripoli.
Removing Libya from the list of countries the United States considers to be state sponsors of terrorism means a 45-day public comment period will begin on Monday, after which Libya would be removed from the list.
The move culminates a process that began three years ago when Tripoli surprised the world by agreeing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
“Today marks the opening of a new era in U.S.-Libya relations that will benefit Americans and Libyans alike,” Rice added.
There have been no normal relations with Libya since 1980. The State Department for several years listed Libya among nations the U.S. government considered as official sponsors of terrorism.
Libya was held responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, which claimed 270 lives, most of them American.
December 2003 turnaround
But Libya has made a decisive move away from terrorism in recent years, officials said.
In December 2003, Libya said it was giving up its weapons of mass destruction and agreed to ship them for storage in the United States.
In return the United States opened a small diplomatic office in Tripoli in February 2004. That same year the United States also ended a broad trade embargo placed on Libya in 1986.
Last month, the State Department in its annual report on terrorism cited allegations that Libyan officials in 2003 played a role in an attempt to assassinate then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
But the report also noted that Libya began working last year with Britain to curtail terrorism by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and had extradited a suspect in a Cairo bombing to Egypt.
A spokesman for the Libyan opposition in exile denounced the move as “unfortunate.”
“This doesn’t help the Libyan people who are looking for international assistance to achieve their human rights,” said Fayez Jibril of the Libyan National Congress.
“Col. Gadhafi will most certainly use this to tighten his hold on the Libyans who aspire for such simple things such as freedom of expression and freedom to have a constitution,” Jibril said from his exile in neighboring Egypt.
Pan Am families contacted
Hints that a U.S. move was afoot were evident when the State Department decided to summon family members of the victims of the Pan Am 103 to Washington for a briefing next week on “U.S.-Libyan relations.”
The administration’s decision also comes at a time when it is attempting to shore up relations with major oil producers because of high prices and a shortage of supplies. Libya has substantial oil reserves.
Gadhafi was once known here as perhaps the most dangerous man in the Middle East. President Reagan ordered air attacks against Libya in 1981 and 1986, the latter because of suspected Libyan sponsorship of a terrorist attack at a West Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers. Two Americans died there.
Since 2003, however, Libya has been held up as a model by the administration for the way aspiring nuclear weapons powers should behave.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said the administration’s decisions were fully warranted.
“Libya has thoroughly altered its behavior by abolishing its program to develop weapons of mass destruction and ending its support for terrorism,” Lantos said.
The United States declared Libya a sponsor of terrorism in 1979, when a mob set fire to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. The United States closed its embassy there in 1980.
Five countries — Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — remain classified as state sponsors of terror.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.