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15 years ago he was a mass murderer. This week he became Blair's new friend

IT WAS a triumphant Tony Blair who arrived home from the European Union summit yesterday - and with reason. The journalists who flew on the plane with him could only declare his trip to Libya a resounding success.

It could easily have been a disaster. Colonel Gaddafi probably ordered the Lockerbie bomb and has certainly armed the IRA. He remains the head of a military dictatorship. He was, for years, ranked among Britain's greatest enemies.

When Tony Blair walked out of his black limousine alone, and into the dark tent where Gaddafi was waiting to greet him, it seemed like two opposite ends of a political magnet were heading towards each other.

Instead of veering away, they linked.

Seeing this pair shake hands and share lunch was, quite literally, incredible. It was as if a trick of the mind had superimposed Tony Blair into Col Gaddafi's camel-adorned campsite, making him chat to the dictator with the unmistakable sunglasses.

Since 11 September, Mr Blair has embarked on extraordinary trips: addressing British troops at Saddam Hussein's former palace in Basra, flying to a pre-war summit in the Azores and going for a walk in the Russian woods with Vladimir Putin.

Col Gaddafi was the Osama bin Laden of the 1980s. He was described by the US as the most dangerous dictator at large in the world - and, in the months after the Lockerbie bomb, few in Scotland would have disputed it.

While other dictators were content repressing their own people, Gaddafi seemed hell-bent on bringing murder to the West - whether with the La Belle disco bomb in Germany, or in sending shipments of guns for terrorists to the Irish coast.

But since al-Qaeda made an attempt on his life in 1998, he has switched sides. He is a mad dog - but, it seems, he is our mad dog and willing to fight a common enemy.

The Libyan strategy is so far the most stunning piece of Mr Blair's foreign policy. He has recognised that Gaddafi is facing a real threat from Islamic insurgents, and badly needs help.

But rather than simply restore diplomatic relations, Mr Blair has moved with breakneck speed - arriving with gas explorers and offering to train Libya's military. A regime which was once Britain's sworn enemy may soon become its client.

This was a last-minute trip: those on the plane were telephoned on Monday to say we were leaving on Tuesday. The itinerary spoke its own story: Belfast, Madrid, Lisbon, Libya, Brussels. The Prime Minister was laying out a narrative of terrorism.

Belfast was intended as a reminder that negotiating with terrorists can bring peace and results - even if the process is tortuous. This is the point Mr Blair wanted Britain to bear in mind as he shared fish couscous with Colonel Gaddafi.

The funeral in Madrid spoke of the danger posed by terrorism. The service gave a message which needed no political amplification.

And the EU summit in Brussels, which ended yesterday, would be the arena where Mr Blair would try to make these lessons learned. Prevaricating Europe needed to recognise the threat - and appreciate the need to embrace Libya and Turkey.

As a well-considered precaution, Mr Blair did not agree to the Libya trip before his ministers had spoken to the British relatives of those killed by Gaddafi-sponsored terrorism. Mr Blair sought their blessing - and was granted it.

This was a masterstroke. The Lockerbie families, and their action groups, have come to represent the nation's conscience on bringing Gaddafi back from the cold: if the bereaved backed Mr Blair, it was hard for the non-bereaved to object.

Libya was on the agenda from the moment the Madrid funeral ended. It set the tone for Mr Blair's comments in Portugal, and was the topic of conversation as he dined with officials in Lisbon's magnificent Petsana Palace Hotel.

Downing Street aides were more than a little nervous about the meeting. When Silvio Berlusconi visited Gaddafi earlier this month, he was kept waiting for four hours. And why? Because the Libyan leader is utterly unpredictable.

From the moment he stepped off the plane, Mr Blair played the situation perfectly. He walked through a parade from Gaddafi's notorious revolutionary guard without making eye contact with any of them. Meeting Gaddafi, he looked grave throughout.

In their pre-visit briefing, British officials were giving a hilarious re-invention of Gaddafi's history. Starting with his birth, the word "dictator" was not used once and his credentials as an African philanthropist and pro-reformer were laid out. Libyan links with Britain were pointed to: Gaddafi himself trained with the British Army in 1966 and more Libyans study in Britain than from any other Arab country - an observation which drew laughter from a corner of the room.

This London-Tripoli rapprochement was moving at a bewildering pace. The decision to give up arms was made the week before Christmas - now, there was talk of "advanced negotiations" with British Aerospace, who sell arms.

And here was the real agenda. The unspoken fact throughout the trip is the 30 billion barrels of proven oil reserves Libya owns, worth some 550 billion. It has lots of money to spend - and needs to rejuvenate its dilapidated military.

This can mean billion-pound arms deals, but British officials preferred more coded language, speaking of Libya's need to "prepare for the world in which it finds itself". This, of course, means selling fighter jets to Tripoli. British Aerospace, it soon emerged, is in "advanced talks" over civil aviation. But in the ambassador's residence, Mr Blair confirmed that there is to be a British military "co-ordinator" with Libya, and their troops could train at Sandhurst.

So when the EU arms embargo is lifted, it would be only natural for Tripoli to buy British equipment. No-one pointed to it, but it is a glaring financial dividend for the price of peace with Gaddafi.

History shows a fine line between courageous peacemaking and ill-judged appeasement. But Mr Blair is on the right side of this line. Trade and political alliance will neutralise the Libyan threat more efficiently than sanctions have done.

The Lockerbie families have given Mr Blair the moral authority to go this far with Col Gaddafi - and the high-risk gamble of negotiating with the dictator has so far paid off.

If it succeeds, Mr Blair will have shown the world a new model for regime change.

Source: http://news.scotsman.com/uk.cfm?id=352342004