AP Interview: UN diplomat works against Gadhafi

AP News
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Posted: Apr 27, 2011 1:15 AM
AP Interview: UN diplomat works against Gadhafi

Libyan Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi objects to being called a rebel diplomat.

For the No. 2 man at the Libyan mission to the U.N., Moammar Gadhafi is the rebel and he and the 14 diplomats he works with are the true loyalists, laboring for the good of the Libyan people.

"We want a civilized state, a democratic state," Dabbashi said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. He expects the NATO-backed opposition forces fighting against Gadhafi in Libya will prevail in a few weeks or months, "but it will not last until the end of the year."

Dabbashi, deputy representative at the mission until Gadhafi withdrew his support for him and other defecting diplomats in late March, figures they can hold out for at least two or three more months at their offices a block from U.N. headquarters in New York.

"Even if we don't have money I think we can continue," he said, noting that Libya owns the 24-story building housing the mission. The operation uses just six floors and a renovation of the other levels is under way in hopes of later renting out some space.

Many Libyan missions around the world, including the embassy in Washington, are now staffed by a handful of former Gadhafi loyalists-turned-defectors. Dabbashi said the previous ambassador to the U.S. no longer works out of the embassy with the half-dozen diplomats who still show up, but remains in the U.S. capital.

So far, the opposition government in Benghazi has been formerly recognized by several countries, including France, Italy, Kuwait, Qatar and Gambia, Dabbashi said. He hopes Jordan, the U.S. and Britain will sign on soon.

"Their decision to defect was not taken lightly and was very brave, given the family members that they have back in Libya," British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said of Dabbashi and the mission's No. 1, Ambassador Abdurraham Mohamed Shalgham.

Although persona non grata with the Gadhafi regime, the 60-year-old Dabbashi and other mission employees have plenty to do.

Every workday morning, Dabbashi walks from his Manhattan apartment to his offices in his charcoal pinstripes and shiny black loafers, arriving about 8 a.m. for an average 12-hour day.

The huge romanticized painting of Gadhafi on horseback that once greeted visitors in the lobby has been removed. The simple, monochromatic green flag representing Gadhafi's government has been replaced in mission offices with the banner of the opposition: three horizontal stripes, one red, one black and one green with a white star and crescent stamped in the middle. It's the flag that was used when Libya was still a constitutional monarchy more than four decades ago before Gadhafi seized power.

Dabbashi or another diplomat talk every day with the Libyan opposition's Transitional National Government in Benghazi about diplomatic efforts, and about what is happening on the ground.

Dabbashi said he and Shalgham also talk regularly with U.N. envoys from many other countries who "continue to deal with us as we are representing Libya." Shalgham was traveling when Dabbashi agreed to speak with the AP, and was not immediately available after his return.

"Our main objective for the moment is to get humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people and to guarantee recognition from as many countries as possible" for the opposition government, he said.

The Libyans' decision to defect but continue working for change in their country has earned them the respect and admiration of many in the U.N. diplomatic corps.

"They were among the earliest to defect, and in doing so have inspired others to leave a crumbling and now morally bankrupt regime whose activities are under investigation by the International Criminal Court," Britain's Lyall Grant said. "They have continued to work in a highly professional manner here as valued colleagues who can provide vital and unique insights into the workings of the Gadhafi regime."

Their activities include working with Western countries to liberate money frozen by recent sanctions against Gadhafi so it can be used to fund the opposition and continue government scholarships for 3,000 Libyan graduate students in the U.S. and Canada.

All diplomats at the mission had their credentials pulled at Gadhafi's request, but Shalgham and Dabbashi still have courtesy passes allowing unlimited access to U.N. headquarters, the Secretary-General's deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.

So far, Gadhafi has had no success in replacing Shalgham and Dabbashi with diplomats loyal to him.

His first choice, Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former U.N. General Assembly president, defected in late March and now lives in Cairo, where he is not involved with his country's opposition, according to Dabbashi.

Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, the man who requested Treki's appointment and a longtime Gadhafi confidant, has also defected. Dabbashi said Koussa lives in Qatar's capital Doha and is giving the opposition information about "Gadhafi's instructions to military commanders and other high officials."

The Gadhafi government's efforts to appoint Nicaraguan diplomat Miguel D'Escoto Brockman to represent its interests before the world body fell flat after U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice noted he lacked the proper visa for diplomatic representation.

For decades, a revolt against Gadhafi had seemed impossible, Dabbashi said. "He had built a wall of fear."

But after popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt bubbled up earlier this year, Dabbashi said he told fellow Arab diplomats "it may happen in Libya, but the price will be high."

Although the demonstrations in Libya began peacefully, the opposition took up arms when chants for change were answered with government gunfire. The Libyan diplomat said more than 10,000 people on all sides have since died.

Dabbashi and most of the rest of the mission denounced Gadhafi shortly after he called for protests to be put down by force. Libya's ambassadors to the U.S., Portugal, France and Sweden were also among the first diplomats to defect.

Dabbashi, a career diplomat, said he didn't have strong personal ties to Gadhafi so it wasn't hard for him to side with the opposition.

But Shalgham, who had long admired Gadhafi as a revolutionary from his native southern Libya, at first refused to disavow the man he called "my friend," rejecting reports that government forces were firing on protesters.

Appearing before the Security Council on Feb. 25, Shalgham did an emotional about-face, likening Gadhafi to Hitler and Cambodian Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and urging the 15-member body to slap sanctions on his government. He was embraced afterward by a weeping Dabbashi, numerous ambassadors from other countries, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Such changes of heart are now common in the Arab world as people who long tolerated repressive governments begin to lose their former fear, Dabbashi said.

"All of these regimes are going to fall,' he said. "No one is afraid anymore; they are willing to pay the price."