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Arab strongman: With Gadhafi death, an era passes

FILE - This undated photo shows Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. A U.S. official says Libya's new government has told the United States that Gadhafi, 69, is dead. The official said Libya's Transitional National Council informed U.S. officials in Libya of the development Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. His death on Thursday, confirmed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, came as Libyan fighters defeated Gadhafi's last holdouts in his hometown of Sirte, the last major site of resistance in the country. (AP Photo/File)http://news.yahoo.com/arab-strongman-gadhafi-death-era-passes-151535237.html

CAIRO (AP) — He often looked like a comical buffoon, standing before audiences, bedecked in colorful robes, spouting words that most of the world considered nonsense.

Yet the death of Moammar Gadhafi was a milestone in modern Arab history, in some ways more significant than the overthrow of lesser autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt.

Gadhafi was the last of the old-style Arab strongmen — the charismatic, nationalist revolutionaries who rose to power in the 1950s and 1960s, promising to liberate the masses from the shackles of European colonialism and the stultifying rule of the Arab elite that the foreigners left behind after World War II.

He was swept aside by a new brand of revolutionary — the leaderless crowds organized by social media, fed up with the oppressive past, keenly aware that the rest of the world has left them behind and convinced that they can build a better society even if at the moment, they aren’t sure how.

Gadhafi was the last of a generation of Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdel-Nasser of Egypt, Hafez Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq who emerged from poverty, rising to the pinnacle of power either through the ranks of the military or the disciplined, conspiratorial world of underground political organizations.

None of the latter crop of Arab autocrats, including Assad’s son Bashar, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and even Egypt’s colorless, ousted president Hosni Mubarak, could rival them in their heyday in terms of charisma, flair, stature and power.

Their model was Nasser, the towering champion of Arab unity who ousted Western-backed King Farouk in 1952 and inspired Arab peoples with fiery speeches broadcast by Egyptian radio from Iraq to Mauritania.

But Nasser’s dreams of Arab unity and social revival crumbled in defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel seized East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights from Syria and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Nasser died three years later, and the fellow strongmen left behind led their countries instead into a political swamp of corruption, cronyism and dictatorship now challenged by the Arab Spring.

The hallmark of the Arab strongman was unquestioned power, the use of state media to promote a larger than life image and a ruthless security network that stifled even a whiff of dissent. That worked in an age before the Internet and global satellite television which opened the eyes of the strongman’s followers to a world without secret police and economic systems run by the leader’s family and cronies.

The Arab political transformation is far from complete. Autocratic rulers are facing challenges from their own people in Yemen and Syria. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is pressing the Sunni monarchy for reform. Rulers in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are maneuvering to contain the Arab Spring.

Iraq is struggling to build a democracy eight years after American-led arms brought down Saddam’s rule.

With Gadhafi’s passing, however, a milestone has been passed. The future belongs to a different style of ruler, whoever it may be.

It may be difficult to imagine that the Gadhafi of his final years — with his flamboyant robes, dark and curly wigs and sagging, surgically altered face — was a trim, handsome, vigorous 27-year-old when he came to power as a strong and vigorous leader. Over the years he had become a caricature figure associated with grandiose dreams such as a “United States of Africa” or seizing all of Israel and sending Jews “back to Europe.”

Even when he was younger, eccentricity was the mark of Gadhafi’s public persona.

A generation ago, President Ronald Reagan described him as the “mad dog of the Middle East,” and his fellow Arab leaders such as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat considered him a dangerous megalomaniac.

Journalists covered his speeches and international visits primarily for amusement.

Images of Gadhafi’s final moments — toupee gone, terrified, confused, powerless in the grip of men who may be about to kill him — make the ousted tyrant appear more pitiable than powerful.

All that was far from his image when he and his comrades toppled a Western-backed monarchy in 1969 in a bloodless coup, promising to transform his poor, backwater country into a modern state.

Promising a new era for his people, Gadhafi closed a U.S. air base, forced international oil companies to hand over most of their profits from Libyan oil to the Libyan state and shook the world with his unabashed support for terrorist or insurgent movements in Northern Ireland, Palestine, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Oil gave him a reach beyond his sparsely populated desert land and enabled him to pursue his revolutionary dreams.

In the 1980s, the lobbies of Tripoli’s few hotels were populated by representatives of what the West considered the most dangerous groups on Earth — stiff North Koreans wearing lapel buttons of their leader Kim Il-Sung, Palestinian extremists huddled over cups of sweet tea, European anarchists and revolutionaries — all come to town to seek the oil-fueled largesse of the “Brother Leader.”

While insisting that Libya was the freest nation on Earth, Gadhafi ruthlessly suppressed dissent, dispatched agents to assassinate his opponents abroad and drove thousands of Libyans into exile.

It all came crashing down in the final battle in his hometown of Sirte. A man who came to power as an Arab revolutionary and self-styled leader of the oppressed and downtrodden died a brutal and inglorious death at the hands of the people he purported to lead.

___

Eds: Robert H. Reid is Middle East regional editor for The Associated Press and has reported from the Middle East since 1978.

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Ala. lab is 1st defense for radiation from Japan

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110330/ap_on_re_us/us_epa_radiation_lab

By JAY REEVES, Associated Press Jay Reeves, Associated Press 1 hr 38 mins ago

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – At a government laboratory in Alabama, workers in blue coats unload envelopes packed with small filters that trapped air particles in Hawaii, Alaska and elsewhere. The discs are placed in lead-lined, barrel-like devices for testing to make sure no traces of radioactive materials have wafted across the Pacific Ocean from Japan.

So far, the sea breeze in places like Honolulu is no more dangerous than the pollen-laden air of the Deep South, according to officials. Still, the 60 or so workers in the 72,000-square-foot building will be the first to know if the Japanese disaster spreads harmful amounts of radiation to the U.S.

Minute amounts of radiation from Japan’s reactor have spread as far as the U.S. East Coast, though officials say it’s less harmful than the radiation people are exposed to on a routine basis. Alabama is one of several states where the lab has detected those traces, it said Tuesday.

Using super-sensitive equipment and computers linked to West Coast monitors by satellite connections that download new air-quality data each hour, experts hunched over monitors are scouring the atmosphere for any radioactive materials that could pose a threat to U.S. public health. There’s always some radiation in the environment — the testers are looking for abnormally high amounts.

Located on an annex of Maxwell Air Force base just a few miles from Alabama’s white-domed Capitol, the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory has added a few extra contract workers because of the threat from Japan, officials say. And, as a precaution, it plans an early start to an annual program that tests milk for traces of radiation.

“I don’t expect to see anything, but we’ll have the data if we’re asked for it,” lab director Ronald G. Fraass said.

An electric plant with six nuclear reactors on Japan’s northeast shore was badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11, prompting mass evacuations as the plant spewed radiation into the environment. Since then in Japan, radiation has been found in raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables grown near the complex.

President Barack Obama, other leaders and scientists have tried to assure Americans that radiation from the Japanese disaster doesn’t pose a threat to the United States, but a hotline set up by health officials in California still was flooded with more than 1,000 calls about radiation.

And across the country, people have been ordering potassium iodide. The pills protect the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine, but they protect no other body parts nor against any other radioactive elements. Health officials have said there is no need to stock up on the pills.

The EPA’s monitoring system is aimed at providing another layer of assurance.

Long before the Japanese quake became a nuclear scare, EPA had a network of 124 monitoring stations scattered nationwide from California to Maine that were deployed mostly because of the threat of nuclear terrorism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The boxlike devices have bell-shaped inlets that constantly pull in air and test it for radiation. Data from those sites is sent by satellite links to the Alabama laboratory, where technicians monitor it constantly on computers for any unusual spikes.

After the earthquake, Fraass said, the agency added seven additional monitors in Hawaii, Alaska, Saipan and Guam as a first line of defense to detect any dangerous radiation moving across the Pacific Ocean. Expected to detect radiation amounts as little as a single hundredth of the government’s level of concern, the fixed monitors actually are detecting far smaller amounts, he said.

“Our system in the field is quite adequate to be able to see anything that would be of concern to the public,” Fraass said.

Aside from the digital monitoring, the detection devices are outfitted with circular white fiber filters that are bombarded with air pulled in from the environment. Those filters are removed twice weekly and sent by regular mail to the lab in Montgomery. The filters are small and the amount of radiation they contain poses no health risk to postal workers, Fraass said.

None of the tests run since the Japanese earthquake has detected dangerous amounts of radiation, he said. And the stepped-up monitoring is expected to continue until the last traces of radioactivity linked to the Japanese crisis are gone.

“Right now we’re only seeing a few that would trigger even a tenth of the level we normally count at, so in effect we’re not seeing anything that should be any concern for the American people,” Fraass said.

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