Patrick Cockburn: Libya's parallels with Iraq under Saddam are truly ominous

Opposition leaders hope that time is on their side. Possibly they are right. But Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein thought much the same 20 years ago

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The conflict between pro and anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya could, according to Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister, who has fled to Britain, turn the country into another Somalia. The ingredients are certainly there for a prolonged conflict. Claims that Muammar Gaddafi is about to fall sound unnervingly similar to predictions in 1991 that Saddam Hussein was going to lose power in Iraq after his calamitous defeat in Kuwait and uprisings by Shia and Kurds that he brutally crushed.

In fact, Saddam survived for another 12 years and was finally only overthrown by an American and British invasion that plunged the country deeper than ever into violence from which it has still not recovered. Could the same thing happen with Gaddafi? It no longer seems likely, as it did during the first few weeks of the Libyan uprising, that he will soon be fleeing for his life from Tripoli or will be the victim of a coup by his own lieutenants.

Instead Gaddafi appears to be stabilising his authority and may be there for months or even years. On the ground there is a military stalemate. Small forces from both sides have captured and recaptured the town of Ajdabiya over several weeks, but neither has been able to land a knock-out blow. At times there are more journalists than fighters on the frontline: forays to-and-fro by a few pick-ups with machine guns in the back are reported as if they were German and British divisions fighting in the same area 70 years ago.

Gaddafi has proved that he is the most powerful player in Libya. Air strikes by the US, France and Britain aimed at stopping Gaddafi's tanks and troops taking Benghazi have had success. The burnt-out carcasses of armoured vehicles litter the sides of the road between Benghazi and Ajdabiya. But the situation has not changed since this early success. It is still only the threat of Nato air strikes that is preventing Gaddafi's men capturing Benghazi today just as they almost did a few weeks ago.

The opposition leaders comfort themselves with the belief that Tripoli and the east of this vast country is bubbling with unrest that will ultimately boil over and force out Gaddafi and his family. It might happen that way, but there is little sign of it. The regime in Tripoli appears to have recovered its nerve and has the forces to crush any fresh local uprising. For the moment Libya is effectively partitioned with the dividing line running along the old frontier between the historic provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Gaddafi's troops may not be able to advance in the face of air strikes, but they also have not retreated pell-mell after heavy losses. They have adapted to the air threat by driving around in dirt-covered pick-ups which look exactly the same as those driven by rebels and civilians.

Libyans are new to war; casualties have as yet not been heavy compared to the numbers killed and wounded in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Benghazi, petrol is still cheap and the electricity supply almost constant, aside from a three-hour-a-day black-out. But there is also a deep fear that if Gaddafi did take the city his troops, denounced as being largely mercenaries by the rebel leadership, would, as one Benghazi resident put it, "kill all the men and rape all the women".

The strength of the Transitional National Council is its international political and military support. It is less good at organising a functioning government. As with other Arab uprisings, the opposition is particularly effective at mobilising demonstrations and winning the sympathy of the international media. Benghazi's old town hall, from the balcony of which Mussolini, Rommel and King Idris addressed crowds in the square below at different times, is now, very appropriately, occupied by the immensely influential satellite television channel al-Jazeera.

When an African Union delegation visited here this week to propose ceasefire terms, which did not include the departure of Gaddafi, the crowd of hostile demonstrators outside the hotel where the meeting was taking place, seemed better organised than the rebel leaders inside. Banners in Arabic, English and French demanded that the dictator should go and asserted that Libya would not be partitioned. Protesters denied there would be any civil war in Libya because the struggle was between the Libyan people on one side and a hated dictator on the other.

Unfortunately, the situation is not so clear cut. Against the odds, Gaddafi and his family are still in business and are unlikely to go away. Libya is effectively divided into two halves. Gaddafi has a core of supporters fighting for him and they cannot all be dismissed as foreign mercenaries. The longer the conflict goes on, and Libyans are forced to take sides, the more it becomes a civil war. The outcome of this conflict, moreover, will be decided by foreign powers, potentially enabling Gaddafi to present himself as a Libyan nationalist defending his country against imperial control.

It would take a long time to reduce Libya to the level of Somalia, but civil conflicts and the hatreds they induce build up their own momentum once the shooting has begun. The headlong flights of rebel militiamen at Ajdabiya after a few shells have landed are much derided by the foreign media. But one of the good things about Libya is that so many young men – unlike Afghans and Iraqis of a similar age – do not know how to use a gun. This will not last.

The opposition leaders in Benghazi hope that time is on their side and that the increasingly isolated regime will crumble from within as it faces irresistible pressure from abroad. Possibly they are right. But Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein thought much the same 20 years ago. And conflicts before and after his fall inspired hatreds that wrecked their country beyond repair.

When this Libyan war started I was struck by the parallels with foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, at close range, I find the similarities even more ominous. We have joined somebody else's civil war, and it is a war in which Britain, France and the US must inevitably play a leading role. Without our support, the local partner would be defeated within 24 hours.

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