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Opinion: The bizarre Gadhafi I met

By Jonathan Mann, CNN
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In a tent with Moammar Gadhafi
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gadhafi in 2005: To suggest Libya is not a democracy would be an insult
  • He used elaborate fly whisk to wave away insects that weren't there
  • Despite eccentricities, author Kenneth Timmerman says Gadhafi is cunning
  • In 2005 Libya was a rogue state trying to redeem itself

(CNN) -- Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is the strangest head of state I've ever met. When I asked him about Libyan democracy he threatened to sue.

"If you or someone else says that Libya is not a democracy then it would be considered an insult," he said. "We could go to court to redeem honor from that insult."

The conversation was back in 2005 at his tent in Tripoli, a single-room structure made of colorful textiles in the middle of a heavily guarded compound.

We sat on plastic garden furniture that had been carefully hand-cleaned by a man in an orderly's uniform, while a small goat picked at patchy grass outside.

Gadhafi is famous for his odd behavior, female bodyguards and bizarre ideas such as his plan to abolish Switzerland.

We only saw very conventional male bodyguards. But even with their protection, Gadhafi's manner made it hard to understand how he managed to stay in power for more than four decades.

He didn't seem up to it. He appeared lethargic and his eyes, even behind sunglasses, seemed unfocused.

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He used an elaborate fly whisk to wave away insects that weren't actually there.

His answers, through a translator, seemed rambling.

Author Kenneth Timmerman, who has also met him, says Gadhafi has kept power through cunning.

"He's a very, very skilled player," Timmerman said. "He divides the country. He conquers the small groups. He's kept the tribes squabbling amongst themselves, and up until relatively recently he has distributed some of the oil wealth to the people."

Human rights groups also say that Gadhafi's regime has killed, jailed and tortured its opponents.

Libya today is in turmoil. Back then, it was in transition, a rogue state trying to redeem itself.

Pressed by international sanctions, it had abandoned support for terrorist organizations, surrendered its weapons of mass destruction to the West and was trying to open-up its economy.

Gadhafi told me he was angry that Libya never got the payoff it expected: U.S. esteem and investment.

In part it was because Washington's attention had turned to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But it was also, no doubt, because no American president or politician would be eager to embrace the man Ronald Reagan once called a "mad dog."

In any country or company's plans for Libya, Moammar Gadhafi was the wildcard, the unpredictable element. He still is.

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