Just a few days ago when a group of reporters travelled to the besieged city of Misrata, we were surrounded by a crowd of passionate pro-Gadhafi supporters feverishly waving the ubiquitous Gadhafi solid-green Libyan flag. On that day, just like this one, we were clearly meant to report that there is wide-spread affection for Gadhafi in Libya. But when we quizzed the enthusiastic crowd, we learned that they were soldiers who had been commanded to appear in civilian dress and cheer for Gadhafi. They weren't even from Misrata. At times the feeble deceit of our government minders seems endearingly naïve.
Behind the screaming throngs who encircled us at the compound: a huge bombed out building. It was targeted on the orders of President Ronald Reagan in April 1986 after Gadhafi was implicated in the bombing of Berlin disco earlier that month. Four people, including two U.S. soldiers, were killed and 230 were injured, including 79 American servicemen. Reagan had hoped the bombs would kill Gadhafi, but the Libyan leader was forewarned by the prime ministers of Malta and Italy and he and his family escaped into a bunker before the bombs dropped.
In an act of characteristic defiance and cunning propaganda, Gadhafi has turned the bombed out building into a kind of shrine. A monument erected in front shows a fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet.
On a huge video wall behind the chanting crowd, images of Gadhafi played in an endless loop. In his 41 years as this country's dictator, Gadhafi's single biggest accomplishment has been the creation a personality cult around his own image. As one passionate Gadhafi supporter said to me a few days ago: "There cannot be a Libya without Gadhafi, he is our oxygen." Massive billboards of Gadhafi are on every street: Gadhafi the Soldier, Gadhafi the Father Figure, Gadhafi in Cool Sunglasses. They look almost comical, like some cheap caricature that you'd find in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. But you quickly learn that Gadhafi's odd choice of clothes and eccentric manner are a convenient cover for a man capable of staggeringly ruthless acts.
Our minders pushed us through the chanting crowds. As is typical throughout this region there were almost no women around, just young men of military age. And this being a conservative Muslim country there is no alcohol. (At least officially. It's easy to find on the black market.)
As we passed the mosh pit, we went through another gate and entered a tranquil area of grass and date palms. All illuminated by elaborate night lights. We were hurried across the lawn where a huge steel wall protected what was clearly Gadhafi's residence. A thirty-foot-high solid-steel gate was wheeled open just enough for us squeeze through. We were ushered down what felt like suburban street, into the stone courtyard of an modern home that must be part of Gadhafi's official residence. Other journalists were waiting.