TRIPOLI, Libya -- It was midnight when Col. Moammar Gadhafi, the man the world loves to hate, walked into the small underground room in a red silk shirt, baggy white silk pants and a gold cape tied at his neck.
Gadhafi, his face etched deeply with fatigue, locked the door and pocketed the key. He is darkly handsome, with black eyes and a cap of tight black curls. On his feet were stack-heeled gray lizard skin slip-ons. He smelled slightly of French cologne.
The midnight summons to his Bab al Azizzia compound on the outskirts of Tripoli was not unusual in the days before the April 15 U.S. bombing. Gadhafi keeps odd hours. His offices buzz well past midnight.
He is vain and egocentric but can be personally charming. His strange personality has a mesmerizing charisma, but he has lost the fire of his early days. Having taken control of a country at 27 with little knowledge of the world, he can be strikingly naive.
He has a cruel side. Fear pervades Libya because he brooks no opposition. Critics who have underestimated him are dead or jailed.
'I am a serious man but not a dangerous man,' Gadhafi says of himself.
'I am sorry that people have the image of me as wicked, as a terrorist. I am very sorry to see this image for me. It is not true. If it were true, I wouldn't be sorry.
'I am far from this image. It is difficult for me to try to make someone believe that I do not do these things. To say that I am not a terrorist. That I want peace, freedom and happiness.'
Those summoned by Gadhafi are given no notice. A car simply arrives for the trip to Gadhafi's compound, which is guarded by Russian tanks and a 15-foot-high concrete perimeter.
Before the bombing, Gadhafi held audience in a room two flights below the administrative building -- his fortified underground offices built by West Germans to withstand anything short of a nuclear blast. The aboveground structure was wrecked by U.S. bombs, so followingng his two-month disappearance he held court in an attached building.
The Libyan leader can ramble for hours on his favorite topics -- his personal Holy Grail of Arab unity, his support for the Palestinian cause and indefatigable opposition to Israel, his eccentric 'Third Universal Theory' he sees as a path between capitalism and communism. At times he loses his train of thought and trails off. He will stop in mid-sentence and say, 'I think that is enough, don't you?' -- then leave.
He was less able to concentrate after the raid.
Gadhafi speaks a heavily accented English he learned as a junior lieutenant during a 5-month Army signal course in Beaconsfield, England. His voice is a guttural bass.
He makes outrageous statements. He has a flair for drawing the spotlight tohis arid patch of the world and he revels in its glow. He threatened to send hit squads to 'strike at the heart of America.' He has said moderate Arab leaders such as Jordan's King Hussein will have to 'drink the blood of the Zionist and American enemies and their reactionary followers.' He has said worse.
He is probably capable of saying anything.
Such statements are quoted in Washington as proof that Gadhafi is the 'mad dog of the Middle East' and 'the most dangerous man in the world.'
But much of the time, Gadhafi commits these outrages on a whim and forgets them days later. That is perhaps what shocked him most about the American raid -- there was a concrete response to his years of rooster crowing. Bombs fell.
Gadhafi is seduced by his own rhetoric. It comes back at him constantly in his state-controlled media, on the radio and leading the nightly television news. The official JANA news agency runs his remarks verbatim, then lists congratulatory messages received from African potentates or Yugoslav student unions. He delights in listening to BBC reports of his more outrageous comments in the hourly broadcasts he monitors on a shortwave Sony.
Gadhafi takes it all in with a slight smile that turns inward with a touch of vanity.
Diplomats in Tripoli who have followed his 16 years of leadership rarely get excited even by his most bloodthirsty statements. One senior West European carries a list to every speech by the man Libyans call simply 'The Leader' and ticks off boxes for the standard subjects - anti-Zionist, anti-Egyptian, anti-American, Arab unity -- as Gadhafi touches them.
At the bottom the diplomat has a blank for new subjects. He cannot remember the last time he filled it in.
What Gadhafi actually does as contrasted with what he says - particularly in the area of terrorism, with which he and his country have become almost synonymous -- is a murky area.
Gadhafi was deeply shocked by the U.S. raid. He is obsessed with the bombing. It is one of the few subjects on which he can concentrate.
For a 'lost' two months after it, he vanished to the towns of Beyda and Derna in the Benghazi region, some 650 miles east of Tripoli, where his wife was born.
He staged a grand comeback -- and missed the curtain.
The Ministry of Information called in about 60 Western journalists for the June 11 anniversary of the departure of U.S. forces from Wheelus Air Base in 1969. The stage was set for a Gadhafi show.
Instead of a personal comeback, Gadhafi appeared only on television. His eyes were slits, his face swollen and jowly. He rambled for about two hours in a low, unemotional voice, at times appearing to lose track of what he was saying. He peered down with his hand on his forehead and sighed deeply.
Diplomats in Tripoli speculated he had not made a personal appearance either because he was on drugs or too ill, or because he had been removed from control.
They attribute Gadhafi's mood swings to a mix of drugs, which some say includes cortisone for his bad back, a medication that worsens psychiatric problems and could cause the swelling that sometimes blows up his face.
The day before, a doctor who has given The Leader depressants and amphetamines to regulate his mood was called to Gadhafi from Hadra hospital in Tripoli.
In 1982, a CIA profile described him as having a 'borderline personality disorder .... Under severe stress he is subject to episodes of bizarre behavior when his judgment may be faulty.'
This time diplomats speculated Gadhafi finally had gone around the bend. Even Libyans were worried.
'I think he must be sick,' confided a usually circumspect Ministry of Information official.
At an interview a week later -- more than two months after the U.S. air raid -- security was tighter. Everyone who walked the corridor was armed. A woman with a pistol on the belt of her tight-fitting green fatigues guarded the door.
Gadhafi sat erect behind an executive desk, wearing a navy blue ski suit tucked into black Italian boots. He appeared healthy. His face had lost the puffiness and his eyes were open again. But there was a fragility about him. He rambled, returning constantly to the American air raid.
'Why didn't you tell me they were going to bomb my house?' he demanded.
He is haunted by the belief that the U.S. jets will return.
Gadhafi has vanished before for long periods and reappeared with grand pronouncements. Once he came back to announce -- all at once - support for President Numeiry of Sudan, a summit meeting to crucify Jordan's King Hussein and a subsidy for rebels in Chad.
At the post-raid interview, he had nothing to announce. The usual rhetoric flowed, but he seemed unsure of himself, talking without conviction, at times glancing up furtively to see if he was being taken seriously.
Advisers came running in answer to abrupt summonses but seemed more to be catering to the whims of a petulant patient than taking orders from their head of state.
'The people are with us,' he said, as if talking to himself. He sighed deeply and looked down at his boots, considering the question of whether he was disappointed that fellow Arab leaders did not meet his request for a summit to denounce the raid.
'The masses are with us. There were demonstrations in Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt -- even in these reactionary countries (against the American raid). So you can see how these people are angry with America and how they support us.' He never looked up.
Before the raid, Gadhafi spoke of wanting a simpler life.
'Truly I am sorry to be a leader,' he said, folding his hands in his lap. 'I am very, very sad. I want to walk outside like a normal man. Now I cannot walk outside. I am not a free man.'
Such wistful notes are absent from his public persona as the world's foremost terrorist.
He is vainly aware of his magnetic looks -- speaking to a crowd, he eyes the television monitors in front of him, adjusting his collar or fluffing the hair at his ears. The tailored flight suits he favors show off his broad shoulders and slim hips.
'American women like my hair,' he smiled in one interview. 'They send me letters and tell me they think I am handsome. But I do not think this is important.'
Yet he does not try to tamp down the personalilty cult that surrounds him. Posters of Gadhafi in colorful costumes paper the drab buildings of Tripoli. In a city center tailor shop there are 14.
His face is the main motif for copper trays hammered out at the souk, the traditional market. Shops sell Gadhafi postcards, stamps, even school bags. A woman invited to tea with him found his smiling face in the bottom of her cup.
But his lifestyle reflects the spartan regime of his desert birthplace. He takes only camel's milk and dates for breakfast.
Diplomats say there are no bank accounts with hidden funds. His numerous houses and tents around the country are more a product of his increasing paranoia about security than acquisitiveness. He rarely sleeps two consecutive nights in the same bed.
Since the attack, he refuses to fly. He travels only in an armored bus in a convoy, stopping to change into a car at times. A dummy convoy leaves hisdeparture point simultaneously, but in a different direction.
He has reason to fear: he has survived at least nine coup attempts, the last in February.
Gadhafi sometimes insists he lives in the Bedouin tent he has pitched in the center of the Azizzia barracks, off the tennis and basketball courts. In fact it is largely ceremonial.
There is a television in the tent, usually playing without sound: Gadhafi likes to watch the rallies and footage from his 'People's Congresses' that play over and over.
'I like to keep in touch with the masses,' he said during one interview as his eyes wandered to the tube.
Gadhafi's main underground living quarters could have been decorated out of Macy's department store basement.
There is no sense of night or day. Down two flights is a small lecture room, then a tiny dark den with imitation wood paneling. A thick curtain hangs between the den and a bedroom and bathroom, his inner sanctum.
Gadhafi allows himself a few luxuries. On a shelf behind the double bed is a tape deck with Arabic tapes (not the Beethoven he tells Westerners he is fond of), including the Lebanese singer Fairouz. In front of a vanity mirror in the bedroom are five Afro combs.
In the modern bathroom, a shelf holds Yves St. Laurent shaving cream, a bottle of Givenchy cologne and Nivea skin lotion. Brown silk Pierre Cardin pajamas hang in the corner.
He is secretive about his personal life. Even something as simple as the number of his marriages must be pried out of him. He answers a question about the number of his wives as if it's a political matter.
'One,' he said. 'I do not believe in the having of many wives.'
Pressed, he admits: 'OK, two. Really only two.'
'My first wife I never saw before I married her. It was arranged by our families. I saw her on the first night ... she was good but she was not for me. So I divorced her several months later.
'I married the wife I have now. You see ... I saw her before my first wife and I loved her.'
He had one child with his first wife, a boy who is now 16. Not even those closest to him will speak of the son or the first wife, Fatiya, who still lives in Tripoli.
Gadhafi had seven children with Safiya, his current wife, a blowsy beauty with long black hair. They met when he was operated on for a hernia at the hospital where she worked as a nurse.
Gadhafi's attitude toward women is contradictory.
He has made military training for women mandatory, to the dismay of tradition-minded Libyans. Some families have kept daughters home from school rather than allow them to don military fatigues. Gadhafi's personal guard -- the 'Green Nuns of the Revolution' -- are a specially trained force of women who guard him jealously.
'I would strap dynamite to my body and blow myself up wherever Gadhafi sent me,' said one pretty 18-year-old named Jamilla.
Women in Libya generally are freer than in other Arab states. They drive cars, can be seen in numbers at the Al Fatah university in Tripoli and stroll the streets in heels and tight slacks. Gadhafi has mandated that if a couple divorces, the woman gets the house.
But although the Libyan leader considers himself an Arab feminist, his Green Book says Western women are slaves because they are forced to do unnatural things like work.
And, he has an eye for the ladies. His supposed amorous exploits are the gossip of Tripoli.
Moammar Gadhafi has been portrayed by Reagan as the United States' enemy No. 1. Before the raid, Gadhafi was proud that his tiny country of only 3.5 million people and just twice the size of Texas was toe to toe with a superpower on the world stage.
'War is glorious if it is just,' he said. 'This is a glorious war. We are leading the Arab nation against the United States. It doesn't matter if we are all killed. We are ready to die.'
Asked why he called for suicide squads if he did not support terrorism, he said:
'Did I do that?' Assured that he did, he merely smiles and grunts. He falls back on rhetoric worn thin.
'We are against Zionism, imperialism and reactionary regimes,' he says. 'When America fights me in my home, I have the right to fight back.'
Gadhafi has changed dramatically since he overthrew King Idris in 1969 as a gaunt innocent with shining eyes and the restless look of someone who neither ate nor slept.
He was born in 1942 in a goatskin tent in the Sirte desert to parents of the nomad Bedoin tribe Gadthathfa. Libya was occupied by Italy and certain streets in Tripoli were barred to Libyans.
He grew up listening to the Voice of the Arabs that piped from Cairo the Arab nationalism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, still Gadhafi's hero. The fiery words underlined the contrast between his country -- a conservative monarchy under pro-Western King Idris -- and the emerging Arab independent states.
Before the discovery of oil in 1959 made it rich, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world. It is 93 percent desert or semi-desert, and its main exports were esparato grass, used to make paper, and scrap metal left from World War II battles.
Gadhafi knew little of the world before taking power. His only trip outside Libya had been to the military signals course in England, where he found the people cold and condescending and thought the country decadent.
His education in Sebha, a drab desert oasis, was spotty because he intermittently left to help herd the family goats and camels and eventually was expelled for leading demonstrations. He lacked academic credentials for the military academy in Benghazi and entered only with the patronage of an influential city official.
At age 17, he had already gathered around him a group called the Free Officers Union and was plotting revolution. He would succeed 10 years later, toppling with 11 other junior officers the aging King Idris while the monarch was taking the cure at a spa in Turkey.
'Of course I knew revolution would be a very big operation, that there would be hard times,' Gadhafi says now. 'But it was our duty and important and we were courageous.'
In the first heady days, Gadhafi roamed Tripoli at night in a Volkswagen, machinegun on the seat beside him.
He changed a government building into a hospital by signing a cigarette pack. He decided his civil servants were slothful and confiscated all but one chair from each office to stop their socializing. He closed a night club by striding onto the dance floor and throwing off his disguise.
Gadhafi's fondest memory is his first meeting with his hero, Nasser.
'When I met Nasser, he said to me, 'I see myself when I was young in you. You are the future for the Arab revolution.' This meant very much to me.' His voice is as warm as it gets.
But the dimming of his early visions has depressed and frustrated him, and it has made his regime a sinister one.
He dreamed of a revolutionary state, but Libyans are a stolid, hospitable people who were happily bourgeois when Libyan oil brought in $22 billion a year and they made annual trips to Europe. They grumble now at the empty shelves and closed stores caused by the plummet in oil revenues to $5 billion this year. Gadhafi calls them 'lazy.'
He thoughthe would succeed where Nasser failed and lead a united Arab nation. In his first days in power, he flew from capital to capital uninvited, exhorting Arab leaders bemused by his messianic quest.
He forged unity agreements with nine of his Arab and African neighbors; today only the one with Morocco remains, and it has been badly shaken by King Hassan's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Frustrated, Gadhafi backed movements to overthrow or kidnap other Arab leaders. He doesn't like governments -- he himself has resigned all official titles and calls himself only The Leader of the Revolution, or simply The Guide -- and he now appeals directly to the populations of other Arab states to overthrow their 'reactionary leaders.'
Gadhafi is uncompromising in his opposition to Israel. He believes utterly that it must be wiped off the map and the Palestinians returned to their homeland.
'We support the Palestinian resistance and all the world supports this,' he says. 'We support their just cause. But we are against terrorism.'
And if the terrorists he supports kill innocent children?
'We support their just cause, but Libya is not responsible for their tactics. We tell them to liberate their homeland.'
The Reagan administration has said Libya is behind much of the world's terrorism and particularly that directed at the United States. The United States said the U.S. air raid on Libya was in retaliation for the bombing of the La Belle disco in West Berlin frequented by U.S. soldiers. Later inteligence information indicated, however, that Syria was behind the disco bombing.
Most of Gadhafi's known terror attacks have been aimed at Libyan opponents abroad or at moderate Arab and African states.
Other than firing on U.S. planes that crossed what he calls the 'line of death' across the Gulf of Sidra, he rarely has attacked directly U.S. targets. The last was in 1979 when the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was burned.
Gadhafi's attitude toward the United States is a volatile mix of love and hate.
Among his heros are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He even draws parallels between himself and Lincoln.
'Lincoln was a man who created himself from nothing without any help from outside or other people. I followed his struggles. I see certain similarities between him and me.'
He calls Reagan 'mad' and an 'Israeli dog' and says his people must shun all American products. But in the next breath he says:
'Americans are a good people. They have no aggressions against us and they like us as we like them. They must know I don't hate them, I love them.'
His thoughts are colored by the inferiority complex he feels toward the developed world, particularly the United States. He views American society as decadent and crumbling, undermined by an all-powerful Zionist lobby.
'I hear it is a complex society inside,' he mused. 'Many Americans don't know about the outside world. The majority have no concern and no information about other people. They could not even find Africa on a map.'
'I think Americans are good. But America will be taken over and destroyed from inside by the Zionist lobby. The Americans do not see this. They are getting decadent. Zionists will use this to destroy them.'
He does not believe the United States and Libya will always be enemies but he sees no rapprochement while Reagan is in the White House.
'There is no use in talks,' Gadhafi said. 'Reagan is mad. If he was here, I would tell him the truth about us. He hears about us only through hostile sources.'
Gadhafi delights in recalling Reagan's past as a B-movie actor, although he has never seen any of the films from the President's Hollywood days.
'Reagan plays with fire,' Gadhafi said shortly after the U.S.-Libyan clash in the Gulf of Sidra in March. 'He doesn't care about international peace. He plays as if he was in the theater.'
'Reagan wants to dominate the world,' he said. 'Reagan wants to find justification to make war.
'If he does this, if it goes on like this, a cataclysm will take place.
'Reagan should come and see I am not a terrorist in a trench with a hand grenade in my pocket.'
Moammar Gadhafi laughs at the line he has used before, from his own private script. He plays self-consciously with the zipper at the neck of his jumpsuit and sips from a tiny cup of sweet black coffee brought on a tray with tall glasses of almond milk.
Three days later, American bombs fall on Tripoli and Benghazi.