Is Jacob Zuma Qaddafi's only hope?

The South African leader is going to bat for Muammar Qaddafi after a bad couple of weeks for the Libyan strongman.

By , Staff writer

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    In this photo, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (l.) meets with Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi, in Tripoli, Libya, on Monday, May 30.
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Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has a dwindling list of friends. Generals, ambassadors, and ministers have all defected. The head of his central bank jumped ship last week.

Even Silvio Berlusconi, who kissed Qaddafi's hand last year and publicly praised his "deep wisdom," has abandoned him. Today in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Fratini threw Italy's weight solidly behind the rebellion, promising hundreds of millions to help them win the Libyan war. Adding insult to injury, he said the Italian money was being lent against Qaddafi's frozen assets in Europe.

But at least Qaddafi can depend on Jacob Zuma and the African Union. The South African president was in Tripoli yesterday pushing for an end to the NATO air campaign that has aided the Benghazi-based rebels. “Nothing other than a dialogue among all parties in Libya can bring about a lasting solution,” Zuma said in a statement released by his office.

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Qaddafi has ruled Libya since taking power in a 1969 coup. He's used torture and executed his political opponents over the years, while vastly enriching himself and his extended family. When the originally peaceful protests against his rule began, he responded by having protesters shot in Tripoli, Benghazi, and other cities. The attitude of the rebels has been, given his actions, that Qaddafi can't be trusted and his departure from power is the only acceptable starting point for a new Libyan future.

The list of countries that agree with them grows larger every day.

Last week, Russia, which abstained from the UN Security Council vote that authorized international action over Libya and his criticized NATO strikes, said Qaddafi was no longer the legitimate ruler of LIbya and needs to step down.

"If Qaddafi makes this decision, which will be beneficial for the country and the people of Libya, then it will be possible to discuss the form of his departure, what country may accept him and on what terms, and what he may keep and what he must lose," Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said.

But Zuma, who helped craft an African Union plan that called for an end to the war with Qaddafi still in power, continues to publicly stand with the man he fondly calls "brother leader." That's not entirely surprising, since Qaddafi has been one of the principle financial backers of the African Union, and provided crucial financial support to the African National Congress, who led the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was also fond of Qaddafi, and devoted much of the final months of his presidency in 1999 to rehabilitating Qaddafi's international image. Mr. Mandela helped negotiate Libya's handover of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence agent later convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. That handover saw international sanctions on Libya lifted. Qaddafi's first full state visit after that was to South Africa. "Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Qaddafi can go and jump in a pool," Mandela said at the time.

This history makes it clear why Zuma isn't an appropriate mediator. The Libyan rebels see him as wholly in Qaddafi's camp, and his forays to Tripoli as doing more harm than good, since they have the effect of demonstrating support for a man reviled by most of the world as a dictator.

For the rebels, it's been overall a very good couple of weeks. In addition to Italy's financial support and the hardening of Russia's public stance, they also won control of Misurata, the largest city they hold outside eastern Libya, which is more or less entirely under their control. Misurata had endured withering rocket and mortar barrages for months. Though there is still fighting near the city, the rebels with NATO support finally pushed Qaddafi's men out of mortar range of the city last week.

NATO action has severely degraded Qaddafi's military, and continues. Yesterday in Rome, five of Qaddafi's generals who defected last week gave a press conference, and one estimated that Libya's army is now about 20 percent of what it was when the fighting began.

Well, at least Qaddafi still has Zuma on his side.

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