Patrick Cockburn: Why the West is committed to the murderous rebels in Libya

World View: Foreign governments rush to recognise the Transitional National Councilin the hope of commercial concessions and a carve-up of the oilfields

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In keeping with the British Government's well-established record of comical ineptitude in dealing with Libya, William Hague chose to recognise the rebel leaders in Benghazi as the legitimate government of the country at the very moment some of them may have been shooting or torturing to death their chief military commander.

The exact circumstances surrounding the killing of General Abdel Fattah Younes remain murky, but he appears to have been lured from his operational headquarters at the front and arrested. As Gaddafi's long-term defence and interior minister, who gave a crucial boost to the insurrection by defecting in February, he knew he was a target for assassination, but may have misjudged the likely identity of the assassins. Believing he was on his way to answer allegations of still being in touch with Muammar Gaddafi, he and two of his senior aides were murdered and their bodies burned. "You killed him," shouted some of his soldiers as they burst into the hotel where the Transitional National Council (TNC) had been meeting. Probably they are right and it is difficult to believe claims by the TNC that pro-Gaddafi gunmen had infiltrated Benghazi and assassinated the commander-in-chief.

Regardless of the circumstances of his death, the murder should begin to raise questions about who Britain and other foreign powers are backing as a replacement to Gaddafi in Libya. What regime will follow his long-delayed fall, when and if it happens? Will a new regime be able to control the country? Is there any reason to suppose that it will have general support, given the bitterness of the civil war? Will the rebels not be as reliant on foreign powers in peace as they have been in war?

Remember that neither Saddam Hussein nor the Taliban were popular in Iraq or Afghanistan at they time they were driven from power. But what followed in both cases was prolonged and murderous anarchy because of the weakness of their Western-backed replacements. William Hague, once again displaying a striking ability to get Libya wrong, had praised the TNC leaders – as he recognised them as the Libyan government – as showing "increasing legitimacy, competence and success". Presumably, his information came from the same source that led him months ago to inform journalists that Gaddafi was already on his way to Venezuela.

The accusations of treason against General Younes and his subsequent murder illuminate divisions within the rebel leadership that they have so far been surprisingly successful in concealing. The last time I saw him was at a press conference in Benghazi where he exuded a confident sense that the rebels were on the road to Tripoli. Burly and commanding, he was the one rebel leader who looked as if he was on top of events.

As he described the military situation, it was difficult to keep in mind the real situation on the frontline. The chaotic forays and retreats of the brave but hysterical rebel militiamen that I had just seen south of Benghazi, were portrayed by Younes as if they were well planned military manoeuvres. Soon, the advance on Tripoli would begin again. There was one mystery: Younes had supposedly defected with 8,000 soldiers under his command but there was never any sign of them and no explanation as to what has happened to them.

The Libyan rebels are even weaker than those in Afghanistan and Iraq where the Western-backed opposition had a core of loyal and well-trained fighters. In Afghanistan, these were the mostly Tajik forces of the Northern Alliance and in Iraq the Kurds had a well organised and well led army in the north of the country. In Libya, rebel forces have always been more meagre, inexperienced and often appear to be one side in hitherto obscure tribal confrontations which have turned into mini civil wars.

The nature of the civil war in Libya has been persistently underplayed by foreign governments and media alike. The enthusiasm in some 30 foreign capitals to recognise the mysterious self-appointed group in Benghazi as the leaders of Libya is at this stage probably motivated primarily by expectations of commercial concessions and a carve-up of oilfields.

These were the understandable motives which led Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy and so many others to kow-tow humiliatingly to Gaddafi prior to the uprising, and to treat his bizarre personality cult with respect. A foreign no-fly zone and limited no-drive zone to defend Benghazi against Gaddafi's tanks could be justified in the early stage of the war, but this rapidly changed into a dubious decision to overthrow Gaddafi, relying on Nato air power and a few thousand rebel militiamen. The supposition was that Gaddafi would go down quickly, and when this did not happen it became a question of throwing good money after bad in the hope that his forces would cave in.

It has not happened yet and, with Ramadan beginning tomorrow, it is unlikely that fasting militiamen will be able to fight their way to Tripoli. Worse, the rebels' only strong card is Nato air power, so any cessation of the war in order to open the way for negotiations is against their interests.

In one respect, the foreign media has been more culpable than governments in giving credibility to the TNC as an alternative to Gaddafi's regime. Official rebel statements and claims have been treated with respect, as if they were not geared to winning the propaganda war. Atrocity stories, such as the use of the mass rape of women as a weapon of war, were broadcast uncritically by CNN and others. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as a UN commission, found there was no evidence for the allegations, but there was no retraction by the media. How could it be that for month after month Gaddafi's forces were still fighting when he was meant to have no support? One answer was that he had hired mercenaries from black Africa. Frightened labourers with no documents were arrested and presented by the rebels at TV press conferences as mercenaries and later quietly released. In contrast to their limited military capabilities, the rebels have proved extremely effective in cultivating the foreign media.

Will the strange death of Abdel Fattah Younes, whoever killed him, puncture the myth that the rebel leadership is fully capable of replacing Gaddafi and ending the war in Libya? Unfortunately for Libyans, the answer is probably no because too many foreign governments are now committed to installing the rebels in power and too many foreign journalists have portrayed them as freedom fighters battling an evil despot.

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