Gaddafi's fatal delay: Libya

The year of revolution: The war was going nowhere – then, suddenly, the dictator was driven from power. In the third part of a series, Kim Sengupta, who reported extensively on the conflict, reflects on the dramatic reversal that changed the country forever

The tanks were rolling down the streets of Benghazi past shattered houses and burning cars. The rebels had been carrying out ambushes out of the alleyways, but they were finally outgunned and exhausted. There was no sign of the promised Western air strikes; the capital of "Free Libya" lay at the mercy of Muammar Gaddafi.

The sense of the crowd around me was one of betrayal and fear. "Don't they care? Don't they know what Gaddafi will do to us, our families?" an elderly man cried, waving his hand in the direction of the regime troops, just a few hundred yards away. "They built up our hopes for this?" Mashala, my fixer, who had several brothers in the resistance, put it more simply. "He will kill us all," he said.

But the bombing did begin, very late, that Saturday, saving Benghazi and altering the course of the war. We saw the effect the next morning, a terrible scene of desolation laid out on a field edged with wild flowers. The regime's forces had been caught; vulnerable; in the open. What lay before us was a ghastly miniature of the carnage on the road to Basra when American and British warplanes bombed Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait.

Colonel Gaddafi had waited too long before making the final push into the heartland of the uprising which had begun more than a month earlier. Fatally, he had been busy concentrating on the enclaves of rebellion nearer to Tripoli, at Misrata and Zawiyah. The time had allowed the opposition's National Transitional Council (NTC) to declare they were in charge of half the country, and gather the international support that would save them.

The regime, realistically, had no chance of a military victory after Nato intervened. The ambiguous terms of the UN resolution 1973, which allowed the establishment of a "no-fly zone" to translate into a fully fledged air campaign, coupled with the failure of Russia and China to use their veto, allowed the First World's most advanced military machine to systematically destroy one from the Third World.

The Libyan dictator could have saved himself from his terrible fate at the end, when he was captured, tortured and killed as he tried to flee the last regime stronghold, Sirte. I saw his body on public display at a meat warehouse along with his dead son Muatassim. Standing beside me watching families queuing up to see the bodies was Abdullah Hakim Husseini, one of the rebel fighters from Misrata who had captured him. He shook his head: "We were shocked as he was at first when we caught him," he said. "I don't think anyone thought he would be there. We thought he would be in the south, Niger or Algeria."

But, as the subsequent capture of Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam showed, it would have been difficult for Gaddafi to have remained free at the very end. The window for a deal would have been in the early summer when there were proposals on the table which would have sent the dictator and his family going into exile with immunity from prosecution. At the time, the conflict was at an impasse, and doubts were rising in the US and Europe. Despite relentless Nato bombing and a naval blockade, the inept rebels in the east failed to make much headway against the regime. The assassination of their commander, Abdel Fatah Younis, by his own side demonstrated the extent to which the Benghazi based opposition was degenerating into an internecine feud.

Things were different in Misrata. The coastal city 120 miles from Tripoli endured a fierce siege with resilience and courage. The day after I arrived there on a boat carrying food and guns from Benghazi, salvoes of missiles killed 42 people killed and injured more than a hundred others. Among the houses destroyed was one where we had spent the night.

Despite the daily battering, the revolutionaries in Misrata were already thinking ahead to the post-Gaddafi landscape. Libya's third city was socially conservative but politically liberal. The Misrata men were dismissive of the fighting prowess of their comrades in the east, but worried about the reactionary form of Islam being espoused by some of the leaders there.

At a hurried dinner, after a hard day's fighting, the conversation turned to the influence of fundamentalism. There were questions about the Darnah battalion from the east, led by Abdul Hakim al-Hasidi, who had been to Afghanistan where he had met Osama bin Laden. What was he like in interviews? asked a member of the Misrata Council. "Well, he kept on saying that Libya was not Afghanistan," I replied. " He needs to remember that, we are not going through all this only to change one set of men telling us how to live our lives for another," snapped Abdullah Mohammed, an engineer turned fighter.

There were mutterings about the role of Qatar. The tiny Gulf state had become the biggest backer of the rebels in the Arab world. British and French commanders flew there to plan the ground campaign; the sheikhdom was pouring money and arms into Libya.

The Qataris were pushing hard for two men they had sponsored to move into positions of influence when the opposition came to power. Ali al-Sallabi, a deeply conservative cleric, was promoted as the spiritual mentor of the revolution. Abdulhakim Belhaj, a former leader of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group (LIFG), became the Tripoli military commander after the regime's fall.

Commander Belhaj is now suing the British Government. Documents discovered in the offices of Musa Qusa, the head of the regime's intelligence service, by The Independent, revealed Sir Mark Allen, then MI6's head of counterterrorism, crowing about the part his service had played in sending him to face torture and imprisonment in Libya.

Belhaj did not get the place in the government he had expected, and in general his fellow Islamists were disappointed. The interim cabinet is one of technocrats. Elections due to be held next year will give a clearer picture of the national will. Four decades of Gaddafi has meant that political institutions and parties have to be built afresh.

There are also questions about the long term effect on the Libyan psyche of the civil war. There is no credible evidence to support claims 0f 50,000 dead made by an NTC official; the real figure is likely to be far less. But it is the case that both sides committed atrocities.

There are a few snapshots I recall. A man, called Amr Dau Algala, picking through ashes with a stick in a container where regime forces had burnt prisoners alive and coming across charred and broken bones; a little later finding a buckle and whispering "Only my brother was wearing a belt in our group." And a roundabout in Tripoli where the rebels had killed regime soldiers at a field hospital, clearly marked with the symbols of the Islamic Crescent. Some of the dead on stretchers, attached to intravenous drips. Some on the back of an ambulance which had been stopped and automatic rifles emptied on the patients. These things are never forgotten, and seldom forgiven. It remains to be seen whether a reckoning comes in the future.