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Libyan leader returns to his U.S. university

SEATTLE - One morning last February, Ali Tarhouni, a professor at the University of Washington's business school, gave his microeconomics students some startling news: He wouldn't be teaching them anymore. He was off to help with the Libyan revolution.

He returned to the university for a brief visit Tuesday following a 10-month absence that saw him serve as the oil and finance minister in the transitional government, hold the hand of a dying 14-year-old boy, and stand bitterly over the battered corpse of Moammar Gadhafi.

"A year ago at this time, I was thinking about what coffee shop would I go to to have a good cup of coffee," Tarhouni said at a news conference. "I've seen a lot of death this last nine months. ... You see a lot of courage, a lot of pain, a lot of pride."

Tarhouni, 60, was exiled from Libya in the 1970s, after he and other students pressed for greater democracy and reforms, and he told his students that he had been on Gadhafi's hit list for three decades.

He earned a doctorate from Michigan State University in 1983 before coming to the University of Washington's Foster School of Business, where he has taught since 1985. He kept pressing for greater freedoms in Libya, without success, and when the revolution finally came, he said, his wife and children knew he would go.

Tarhouni soon found himself heading the oil and finance ministries in the transitional government, backed by rebels who knew his credentials could bring them added legitimacy in the West. He won credit with journalists by speaking honestly about the difficulties and disorganization the rebels faced in those tumultuous days, and became one of the most visible and internationally respected figures in the transitional government.

He declined to continue serving in the government, though, and criticized the country's new leadership as unrepresentative of the populace — a government he described as unduly influenced by foreign powers, an apparent reference to meddling by Qatar. But on Tuesday he described it as a good government, and said he would continue working to form a new, broad, democratic political party.

"There's really no manual for building a state from scratch," he said. "What makes it really tough is — we're hoping, we're dreaming, and I believe strongly we will succeed in building a democratic society — but there's really no history of democracy in Libya. ... I thought I could serve it better by building this political movement."

It isn't clear whether Tarhouni will return to teaching. His stay in Seattle to see his wife and grown children will last just a week.

Among the most memorable moments of his return to Libya from exile were standing in the capital, Tripoli, and declaring it to be free, as well as holding the hand of a crying, injured 14-year-old supporter of Gadhafi, he said.

"I told him, `You're not my enemy,"' Tarhouni said. "He died three hours later."

He was less saddened by the death of Gadhafi.

"I stood over his corpse the same day he was killed," he said. "I thought of the comrades and friends who died in prison and never saw this day. ... I couldn't believe this ugly corpse did this damage to Libya."

Within 15 seconds of getting back in his car, though, he realized Gadhafi was no longer on his mind. There were other things to think of.