Patrick Cockburn: Hatred of Gaddafi brought Libyans together. What can unify them now?

View From Tripoli
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The Independent Online

Nato planes are bombing Muammar Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, underlining the degree to which Nato fully joined the war against him over the past month.

It was the use of highly trained spotters on the ground calling in air strikes on pro-Gaddafi defensive positions and bases which led to the surprisingly swift military victory and the fall of Tripoli last weekend. On the road south of the capital, along which the rebels advanced, one can see buildings held by Gaddafi forces torn apart by Nato bombs and missiles. The sand barriers set up by the government troops to block the road look pathetically ineffective in the face of this type of destruction.

Without Nato the rebels would have been defeated five months ago. For all the V-for-victory signs from jubilant militiamen in their pick-up trucks around Tripoli this week, they were never militarily strong enough to overcome Gaddafi by themselves. But will they be able to convert a foreign-backed military triumph into a political success whereby they create a democratic, prosperous and stable Libya? Will the country follow the dismal precedent set in Afghanistan and Iraq where the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were replaced by feeble, dysfunctional governments?

"We are all one family," said a Libyan businessman hopefully to me yesterday as we drove through the empty streets of central Tripoli with staccato bursts of machine-gun fire occasionally drowning our conversation. There are ominous reports of massacres of prisoners on both sides. The next six months, or year, will show just how much of a family Libyans really are.

An advantage in fighting Gaddafi was that he had a genius for making enemies at home and abroad, who had nothing else in common except their detestation of him. He might be loathed by Americans because of Lockerbie, but he was equally hated by the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah guerrilla movement because of his alleged complicity in the murder of the Shia religious and political leader Moussa Sadr, who disappeared during a visit to Libya in 1978. Washington and Hezbollah don't agree on many things, but an intense dislike of Gaddafi is one of them. Even on the run, Gaddafi is a focus for rebels. At the entrance to the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tripoli, where I am staying, militiamen have placed a picture of the former leader and his Green Book on the floor for all entering the building to step on. In doing so, there is some danger of hotel guests first tripping over the frame of the picture and then slipping on the book as it lies on the marble floor.

Dead or captured, Gaddafi will not be the uniting factor for the rebels he has been in the past. The same will be true of Nato members looking for their role in his overthrow to be rewarded with political influence or commercial advantage. For the moment, Tripoli is preoccupied with more immediate and mundane difficulties. Fresh water has stopped in much of the city because pro-Gaddafi forces have reputedly seized an area 600km to the south where water is pumped from deep underground. According to an engineer who used to work for Tripoli municipality, even when the pumps are turned on, it will take several days to resume supplies.

Security in Tripoli also remains fragile. (As I write this in a room overlooking the port there is suddenly the sound of shooting not far from the hotel and for a moment the electricity cuts out.) "The only real looting has been of government cars and we are asking drivers to show documents to prove that they own the vehicles they are driving," said one rebel leader. "If they can't prove ownership, we confiscate the car." In fact, his worries are a little premature since most people are not driving anywhere because of fear of snipers and the shortage of petrol.

It is easy to see menacing parallels between Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq. In all three cases governments were overthrown directly or indirectly by foreign intervention. Militarily Afghanistan most resembles Libya because the Taliban were defeated by the Northern Alliance militia whose advance was wholly dependent on massive support by US air power directed by small teams of US spotters on the ground. In Iraq, the US and its allies long pretended that the country was being run by Iraqis who owed their positions entirely to US support. For all the hypocritical claims to the contrary in Washington and London, the wars started in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 have never really ended.

Is Libya going to suffer the same fate? Will low-level fighting continue for months? Despite similarities, Tripoli feels different from Kabul and Baghdad. Unlike them, it does not have a 30-year legacy of war. When the Libyan war started, foreign journalists watching inept militiamen south of Benghazi derided their inability to use weapons, but at least this was better than Afghanistan and Iraq where millions of young men are highly experienced in using guns.

For all the demonisation of Gaddafi, he was never a monster on the lines of Saddam Hussein. His regime might kill, torture and imprison his enemies, but not on the industrial scale of Iraq. On visits to Libya over the past 30 years, I have been more struck by the Inspector Clouseau character of the regime than anything else. Official minders in the 1980s once took me into the desert to see the Libyan army withdraw from Chad but could not find any of the soldiers. Eventually our vehicle stopped and our driver explained: "No petrol!" He went off to get some. I said I was going for a walk. A minder said this was unwise because we were in a minefield and I noticed the lethal little prongs sticking out of the sand beside the road.

One danger is that war propaganda, skilled on the rebel side, may have poisoned relations between Libyans to the point that it will be difficult for the victors to eschew vengeance. For instance, the story of officially encouraged mass rape as a weapon of war was propagated by the rebel side and credulously taken up by the international media. A UN commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found no evidence for this and many other atrocity stories but their reports were generally ignored by the media. Ordinary Libyans still believe the propaganda. In May, I spoke to refugees from the oil port of Brega who said the main reason for their flight was the conviction that the women would be raped by pro-Gaddafi troops.

The legacies of war may be difficult to overcome. But Libyans have a good chance of restoring peace and prosperity. They are not divided by communal and sectarian differences as in Afghanistan and Iraq. For all the complaints against Gaddafi and misuse of oil money, the standard of living and educational standards are high. There is not a marginalised section of the population, living on the edge of malnutrition, as do a third of Afghans. Oil revenues are high and the six million population small enough for them to benefit all. Unlike Iraq, there is no occupying foreign army.

All the same, I wish the shooting outside my window would stop.

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