ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi will set foot on U.S. soil for the first time next month when he comes to address the U.N. General Assembly. Now he wants to put down stakes in the middle of American suburbia.
Plans to set up a tent and allow him to stay at a Libyan-owned estate in this upscale community 12 miles north of Manhattan were attacked Monday by neighborhood residents and public officials, particularly after the hero's welcome Libya extended last week to the lone man convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103.
The attack over Lockerbie, Scotland, thought to be the work of Libyan intelligence, killed all 259 people on board the flight, including 33 from New Jersey. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was freed from a life sentence in a Scottish jail and returned to Libya on compassionate grounds because he is dying of cancer.
"Gadhafi is a dangerous dictator whose hands are covered with the blood of Americans and our allies," said U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, whose district includes Englewood. He promised there would be "hell to pay" if the U.S. State Department violates a long-standing deal barring the dictator from staying at the Libyan estate.
State department officials said no decision had been made on the issue.
Rothman was mayor of Englewood 26 years ago when the city learned the Libyan Mission to the United Nations had purchased the Palisade Avenue estate. He said local officials worked out a deal with the U.S. State Department limiting its use to the recreational activities by the ambassador and his family. Gadhafi was expressly forbidden to live there, he said.
The Libyans don't pay taxes on the estate under the deal, current Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes said.
He said he would be very disappointed if Gadhafi visited.
"I'm not going over there with a honey cake," Wildes said.
Gadhafi's U.N. appearance culminates a years-long effort to rehabilitate the Libyan strongman's international image, which has included denouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. He's ruled the oil-rich North African kingdom since 1969.
"This is what happens when you have the path of appeasement," said Susan Cohen, of Cape May Court House, N.J. "He's getting everything he wants, and I guess that includes a trip to the state of New Jersey, which certainly doesn't need this."
Cohen's 20-year-old daughter died in the plane bombing.
Englewood is an upscale community of 28,000 residents. About 15 percent are Jewish, according to Rothman.
"I don't want him living here if he thinks a convicted terrorist is a hero," said Dr. Joel Kopelman, 58, who lives a block away.
Shmuley Boteach, an orthodox Jewish rabbi, family counselor and star of the mainstream television series "Shalom in the Home," lives next door to the Libyan estate.
He was initially supportive of the idea of Gadhafi coming to the U.S., but that changed after the release of al-Megrahi.
"I don't want him as a neighbor," said Boteach. "The events of the past few days have changed everything. Gadhafi has shown his true colors."
Bob Monetti of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose 20-year-old son died in the bombing, said allowing Gadhafi to stay in New Jersey would make it more difficult to live with what's happened.
"When he's in his tent in the desert in Libya he's a distant character that we can hate at arm's length, but when he comes to New Jersey, it just means he's on our home turf, and we don't want him on our home turf," he said.
In Washington, U.S. officials said Englewood was one option the Libyans were looking at to pitch the tent after their request to set it up New York's Central Park had been denied due to logistics and security concerns.
"We have been talking to the U.N. about this issue, we've been talking to the New York City authorities about the issue of where Mr. Gadhafi is going to stay, but no decisions have been made," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday. "No decision has been made about where anybody's going to pitch a tent."
Ahmed Gebreel, a spokesman for the Libyan Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
However, Nicole DiCocco, spokeswoman for the Libyan Embassy in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the Libyan government owns the property in Englewood and it's a possible site for Gadhafi. She said that he would not live in the tent, but use it for entertainment purposes.
"We own the residence in Englewood, but it hasn't been confirmed that he'll be staying there," DiCocco said.
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg has asked the State Department to limit Gadhafi's travel in the United States to the U.N. headquarters district.
Associated Press Writers Matthew Lee and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.