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Bearding Colonel Qaddafi in his Libyan tent

In the heart of Azizia military barracks in downtown Tripoli, there is a tent with a sisal roof, low enough so only small people can walk through its entrance wihhout stooping, and decorated with sidings of quilted blankets and Oriental carpets on the floor. Cushions around the three enclosed sides provide the only furniture.

This is the official-residence of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

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The eccentric Libyan leader has other homes and offices elsewhere, a proper residence for his wife and five children, a normal office with massive crescent-shaped desk and book-lined shelves, a refuge in the desert for his sporadic meditations. But the tent is where Qaddafi holds court.

It is an anomaly in the otherwise modern and sprawling, tank-protected barracks, perhaps calculated for effect. The sand under the carpets was imported from the desert, aides admit, and four camels -- also imported -- graze incongruously nearby. But it somehow fits the image Qaddafi has sought to build around his unusual role in this unpredictable Arab nation.

From this tent, Qaddafi tries to explain to visitors how he is a leader without title, of a government that is not a government but a "state of the masses."

From this tent, Qaddafi threatens the United States with cutting off oil because of its alleged anti-Libyan campaign; declares his goal of total Arab unity in annihilating Israel; argues that Libya is not supporting terrorism nor developing nuclear weapons and, finally, calls for an Arab counterattack on the Israeli nuclear facility in retaliation for Israel's raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor.

All this in a soft voice, disquietingly so, since his eyes move nervously throughout; his hands fidget constantly with the sides of his sunglasses; his slippered feet cross, uncross, and cross again.

His words have been ominous, but they also, in context, lack much impact. One comes away feeling more than anything else Qaddafi's isolation, his hubris.

His threat to the US was the most telling, especially compared with a similar meeting with this reporter three months earlier in this same tent. At that time , Qaddafi actually appealed to the US for detente, and invited Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. to Libya during his then-impending Middle East tour, adding that he hoped for a dialogue with the Reagan administration.

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On that occasion, he held out an olive branch to the new US president: "We hope that in his new administration the relations will be better . . . to understand each other; to respect each other," he said.

This time, significantly, Qaddafi chose not to speak in English, as he had done on the previous encounter, but in Arabic with a translator, and the tone was noticeably less cordial. In his view now, President Reagan "has taken steps recently to show he doesn't understand anything in politics. He is more stupid than Carter. The American people will reject him as they did Carter.

"It is laughable that the US is talking about intervention of others when it is intervening in many places like El Salvador."

Aides -- and later Western diplomats -- confirmed that Qaddafi had sought better relations with the West earlier this year; that he was aware his one-sided alliance with the East bloc had hindered his goal of world recognition.

Since then Qaddafi has been not only rebuffed, but humiliated; his diplomats expelled from Washington in May for what the State Department labeled Libya's support of terroist activities and its "military adventurism," referring mainly to intervention in neighboring Chad's civil war.

The fiercely proud and defiant leader immediately pledged revenge, suggesting Libya might "keep its oil in the ground." On the surface it was a dire threat, since Libya is the third largest supplier of US oil needs.

But Qaddafi quickly found out that he could not afford such revenge. In fact , Libya needs its US connection -- its technology and machinery for oil exploration -- and some 2,0300 American technicians -- more than the US needs Libya's oil. Oil industry analysts estimate that Libya is up to 80 percent reliant in some aspect of US expertise, which could not easily be replaced. The US technology is incompatible with other systems.

The price of revenge was perhaps best underlined the day after the meeting in the tent at, surprisingly enough, the opening of a supermarket.

Qaddafi came to cut the white ribbon of the gleaming glass-and-steel superstructure, with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at his side as guest of honor. Libyan television offered live coverage. And Qaddafi threw a party for foreign dignitaries on its top floor after the official ceremony.

The store, known simply as the Tuesday Market, replaces the colorful souks and shops and bazaar stalls, the Arab merchant tradition. Earlier this year, the government announced that it was abolishing individual enterprise. All private retail store are to be closed down by the end of the year and replaced by state-run supermarkets.

Officials like to boast that the new stores are better than duty-free counters at international airports. "They're profit- free," explained the director of the Tuesday Market, adding that the markup is between 1 and 2 percent, just enough to pay operating costs.

The prices and the variety of goods did, indeed, indicate that the supermarkets are among the best shopping areas in Africa, including South Africa. Japanese TVs and shortwave radios were cheaper than in Tokyo retail stores. The same was true of French cheeses, American freezers, toys from Cyprus, Danish cookies, German appliances, English toiletries, Spanish sardines, and Italian pasta machines.

Qaddafi smiled broadly as he escorted PLO's Arafat through the sprawling departments, stopping to show the selection of British, French, or Romanian tuxedo shirts, ending the tour by borrowing rugs from the carpet department to use to say the last of the Muslim daily prayers.

The supermarkets represent one of the ways Qaddafi has used his petrodollars -- estimated at $20 billion for 1981 -- to spread the wealth among Libya's relatively small population, less than 3 million.

Although just 15 years ago Libya was one of the poorest nations, it is now one of the richest, according to World Bank figures. The per capita income soared from just under $2,000 in 1970 and to almost $10,000 last year, according to European diplomats in Tripoli, with world inflation having little impact because of government subsidies.

Libyans have, in the process, grown used to an average seven radios and two TVs per family, a new car every two years, and new four-lane highways -- replacing single track roads -- to drive on, plus free medical services and schools. Unlike revolutionary Iran, Libya has truly become a consumer society, relishing its riches.

Qaddafi recognizes that, however he is perceived abroad, he does have a base of support at home, much of it because of the life style he -- and oil revenues -- have provided the average Libyan.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Qaddafi, almost 12 years into his revolution, has become the victim of his own economic miracle, losing some of his political leverage in carrying out his seemingly whimsical declarations because of the expectations of his people.

Qaddafi has also imported some half a million laborers to run Libya's new industries and construct new high-rise apartments, office buildings, schools, and clinics.The skylines of scruffy Tripoli, Benghazi, and even the small towns are being rapidly transformed by laborers from 22 countries, ranging from Poland to Bangladesh and South Korea. A Scandinavian port captain with 14 years of service in the Middle East compared the boom with that in Saudi Arabia in 1973.

Families who lived in shacks or tents a decade ago are now installed in two or three bedroom apartments. It is not unusual to find the son enjoying a Sony Walkman, the daughters Italian dresses, the father an American watch, the mother her first proper kitchen.

The government likes to "escort" visitors to the desert town of Garian, two hours south of Tripoli, to show how life has changed. The highlight is a new chinaware factory, a misnomer since its primary products are porcelain toilets and bidets. The equipment is from the US and West Germany; a Romanian and an Italian help direct local labor. It is a booming business, a Ministry of Information official boasts, because now every new home and office must have at least one of the major products.

The factory has provided jobs and the first financial security for the majority of Garian's residents, both men and women, who less than a generation ago were living on hand- to-mouth budgets.

Again unlike Iran, Qaddafi's brand of Islamic socialism has included women, not forced themback to chadors. After the age of 12, they still will not be seen on public beaches in bathing suits, but they do undergo three months of military training every year and play a recognized role in the "people's militia.

The changes reflect, at least in part, why many Libyans appear -- so far -- willing to pay the price of the loss of many basic rights; why they put up with the heavy doses of rhetoric; the ever-present face of Qaddafi on posters and billboards; and the often baffling political slogans stuck on walls of schools, hotels, airports, apartment buildings: "Representation is the falsification of democracy," or "Forming parties separates societies," and "Partners, not wageworkers."

That is not to say there is no discontent among Libyans, nor that they have much of a choice. Walking along the crowded beaches on a Friday -- the Muslim Sabbath -- the people are friendly and delighted to share their thoughts with foreigners on any subject except internal politics.

The late night televised "trials" of more than 500 suspected dissidents earlier this year have made clear their limitations.

Besides, most are unaware of much of what is going on around them due to total state control of the news media. There was no local news of the Libyan death squads that roamed Europe last year, killing off at least eight known opponents of qaddafi.

Nor have there been reports of the political defections, including a former prime minister, the former head of Libyan intelligence, several ambassadors, and even a couple of Qaddafi's cohorts in the 1969 bloddless coup that toppled King Idris I.

And few understand how their leader is perceived abroad, as ruthless, unstable, dangerously fanatic. To many at home, he is simply a strong nationalist, a defender of his people. They do not feel fully the controversy and isolation the former desert boy's erratic behavior has imposed on the country.

But the revolutionary upheaval has yet to end. The next step, as called for in the theoretical musings of Qaddafi's little green book, is the abolition of money, a farfetched concept still unexplained in practice.

In one of his rare interviews, Qaddafi claimed that there is still a long way to go in the evolution of this unorthodox state, as he "awakens" Libyans to a new social concept that will allow the masses to "command" their destiny through peoples' "committees" that are taking over management of factories, schools, housing projects, and, in theory, local government.

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