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State Department Backtracks on Statement About Libya's Gadhafi

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Apology or clarification, take your pick.

Either way you parse the current diplo-spat between Washington and Tripoli, it is clear the State Department's spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, was working today to extricate himself from causing further tensions between the U.S. and Libya.

"I made an offhand comment last Friday regarding statements from Libya. It was not intended to be a personal attack," Crowley said at today's press briefing. His "offhand" comment was a direct slap at Libya's controversial and often colorful leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

The spat began when Crowley was asked last week what he thought of Gadhafi's comment in a speech in which he called for a "jihad" (armed struggle) against Switzerland. Crowley said he was reminded of another of Gadhafi's speeches: "It brought me back to a day in September, one of the more memorable sessions at the U N General Assembly that I can recall -- lots of words and papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense." (pictured above)

Crowley confirmed the Libyan foreign ministry called in a U S diplomat and demanded clarification of last week's comments and raised the prospect of an adverse impact on economic (read: oil) and political ties between the two countries.

Diplomats very rarely call an apology an "apology." Crowley's comment today that his words were "not intended to be a personal attack" is about as close as anyone wanted to come to saying 'I'm sorry' to Gadhafi.

Another State Department official explained the situation as "trying to balance the sensitivities of the Libyans with what was really an offhand comment, yet not ignoring what Gadhafi said about Switzerland -- the use of the word "jihad" can be construed in many ways."

Crowley, this official said, "wasn't trying to make some statement of policy. It was a reaction to a question about an eyebrow-raising suggestion by Gadhafi."

Now, Crowley and his colleagues can sit back and wait to see if the Libyan leader is satisfied and willing to let the matter be dropped.

Charles Wolfson is CBS News' State Department Reporter. You can read more from him in Diplomatic Dispatches.