WASHINGTON - The Bush administration said Monday it is restoring normal diplomatic relations with Libya for the first time in over a quarter century after removing Moammar Gadhafi's regime from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"We are taking these actions in recognition of Libya's continued commitment to its renunciation of terrorism," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement. She said Tripoli's cooperation in combating international terrorism has been "excellent."
The United States has not had formal diplomat relations with Libya since 1980, although a thaw in long-standing hostility enabled Washington to open a diplomatic office in Libya in 2004.
The move announced Monday culminates a process that began three years ago, when Gadhafi surprised the world by agreeing to dismantle his country's weapons of mass destruction programs.
"As a direct result of those decisions we have witnessed the beginning of that country's re-emergence into the mainstream of the international community. Today marks the opening of a new era in U.S.-Libya relations that will benefit Americans and Libyans alike," Rice said.
Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said, "This is not a decision that we arrived at without carefully monitoring and assessing Libya's behavior."
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Shalgham told The Associated Press the move was not a surprise.
"It was a result of contacts and negotiations. It is not unilateral. It is a result of mutual interests, agreements and understandings," he said.
"In politics there is no such thing as a reward but there are interests," Shalgham said when asked if the restoration of ties was an incentive to Libya to further cooperate with the United States.
Libya was held responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988, which claimed 270 lives, most of them American.
"Today's announcement demonstrates that when countries make a decision top adhere to the norms of international behavior they will reap the benefits," Welch said.
Removing Libya from the list of countries the United States considers to be state sponsors of terrorism means a 45-day public comment period will begin on Monday, after which Libya would be removed from the list.
The U.S. decision comes as the Bush administration looks for ways to persuade Iran to drop disputed nuclear development that the West fears could lead to weapons production. The United States has no diplomatic and few economic ties with Iran. While the United States has not offered to normalize relations with Iran in return for compliance on the nuclear issue, Welch said the Libya example is not lost on Iran.
A spokesman for the Libyan opposition in exile denounced the move as "unfortunate."
"This doesn't help the Libyan people who are looking for international assistance to achieve their human rights," said Fayez Jibril of the Libyan National Congress.
"Col. Gadhafi will most certainly use this to tighten his hold on the Libyans who aspire for such simple things such as freedom of expression and freedom to have a constitution," Jibril said from his exile in neighboring Egypt.
The establishment of normal relations may have come sooner were it not for allegations that Gadhafi's regime was behind an attempt on the life of Saudi's Arabia's King Adbullah when he was crown prince several years ago.
Hints that a U.S. move was afoot were evident when the State Department decided to summon family members of the victims of the Pan Am 103 to Washington for a briefing next week on "U.S.-Libyan relations."
The administration's decision also comes at a time when it is attempting to shore up relations with major oil producers because of high prices and a shortage of supplies. Libya has substantial oil reserves.
Gadhafi was once known here as perhaps the most dangerous man in the Middle East. President Reagan ordered air attacks against Libya in 1981 and 1986, the latter because of suspected Libyan sponsorship of a terrorist attack at a West Berlin disco frequented by American soldiers. Two Americans died there.
Since 2003, however, Libya has been held up as a model by the administration for the way aspiring nuclear weapons powers should behave.
The American attack on Iraq made Gadhafi wonder whether he would be next. In December 2003, he agreed to surrender his weapons of mass destruction facilities and agreed to allow them to be shipped for storage in the United States.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said the administration's decisions were fully warranted.
"Libya has thoroughly altered its behavior by abolishing its program to develop weapons of mass destruction and ending its support for terrorism," Lantos said.