Lessons from Iraq for Libya? Don't do what the US did.

And remember that it is a very different place.

By , Staff writer

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Libya's war looks like it's going to rage on for some days yet. Though much of Tripoli is now in rebel control, there was heavy fighting in parts of the city today, a chaotic and lawless situation persists on some of the roads around the city, and cities like Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte and Sabha in the country's deep south appear to remain in the hands of regime loyalists.

But by the time an angry citizenry has rifled through the sock drawers and wardrobes of a tyrant's palaces it's almost always too late for him to stage a successful comeback. The National Transitional Council (NTC) has offered a $1.7 million bounty on Qaddafi – and amnesty for any regime figure that brings him in – in an effort to accelerate the cracking of regime solidarity.

NTC leaders are holding a flurry of international meetings – in Paris, Doha, and Istanbul – this week to get some of Qaddafi's billions that are currently locked up in foreign banks released to them so they can put that money to work building interim legitimacy. It's a reasonable time to look at what comes next.

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For Americans, obsessed as we are with projecting our own experiences on the rest of the world, the starting analogy for answering questions about what to do with Libya is often Iraq.

Saddam Hussein, like Qaddafi, was an Arab leader who'd long defied US interest in the region. Both men ran ruthlessly efficient police states.

But there the similarities end – most obviously in the fact that the troops who took Tripoli are entirely indigenous guerrillas, not US soldiers. The rebel's near-victory would not have been possible without NATO – largely French – air assaults on Qaddafi's troops and command centers (the language in the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 that air strikes would be only used to "protect civilians" notwithstanding), but the Libyan rebellion owns this victory in a way that the Iraqis never did.

There are also vast social and cultural differences, most notably the far greater homogeneity of Libyan society, which is overwhelming comprised of ethnic Arabs who adhere to Sunni Islam. Iraq, with its majority Shiite population long treated as second-class citizens by the Sunni minority that Mr. Hussein's Baath regime drew from, had the risk of sectarian conflict built into its DNA. The large Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, an area already autonomous thanks to a NATO no-fly-zone imposed after the first Gulf War, created another front for potential ethnic conflict.

And the fall of Hussein, who had been a staunch opponent of theocratic Iran, put the country in play for the geopolitical games of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two great regional powers it lies between. Both the Saudis and the Iranians backed sectarian militias inside the country, helping to feed Iraq's bloody civil war.

So Libya is in a slightly safer geographic neighborhood, with Egypt to the east and Tunisia to the west still digesting the popular uprisings that toppled their own long-standing dictators. Libya's long-suppressed Berber minority in the west of the country have been enthusiastic supporters of the revolution and are expecting a better deal in a new Libya. There are also smaller groups of Tuareg- and Toubou-speakers, but by and large Libya is far less diverse than Iraq.

Also on the plus side is the fact that Libya's infrastructure is in much better shape than Iraq's was after 10 years of sanctions and the crippling air campaign at the start of the 2003 invasion. There, ongoing power outages throughout the country in the wake of invasion helped to stir anger at both the US-led coalition and the local transitional government it installed. In Libya's case – assuming the fighting is wrapped up soon – ramping up basic services to a prewar level should be much easier.

But there are also risks. Qaddafi remains at large. This morning, CNN reports that rebels believe they have him surrounded in a compound in Tripoli. If he's caught soon, it would be a major feather in the NTC's cap – the ultimate reassurance to any Libyan fence-sitters considering joining the rebellion that he isn't making a comeback. But if not, it's theoretically possible he could become a rallying point for members of his Ghadafa tribe and others who have benefited from his rule, creating conditions for an insurgency and banditry in parts of the country.

If there is an important lesson to be drawn from Iraq, it's that ideological purges of existing structures like the military and police are counterproductive. Whatever you do, don't do what was done before.

In 2003 Paul Bremer took the lead of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Almost immediately he issued CPA Order No. 1, which banned members of Hussein's Baath party from most government work. Order No. 2 was even worse, dismissing Hussein's entire army, creating a ready-made band of trained, out-of-work men angry at the emerging order. Iraq's emerging political class engaged in mass purges of bureaucrats who belonged to Hussein's Baath Party, and Shiite militias organized death squads that assassinated hundreds of former regime figures, helping to set up the bloody conflict that followed.

As poorly run as Iraq was under Hussein, however, it had institutions that more or less worked. Qaddafi's Libya has been far more about one-man rule, with a systematic hostility to any kind of institution-building for the past 42 years. Nevertheless, NTC leaders say they're aware of the risks of a breakdown in law and order, have been promising that all salaries for police will be paid, and have been sending text messages to phones throughout the country urging police to stay on post and preserve law and order. If that effort fails, Libya could be in for tougher times ahead.

In preparation for that negative possibility, some have been urging the creation of peacekeeping or so-called "stabilization force" for Libya. But it's hard to see a foreign effort that would do much good. The insertion of American or European troops would probably be the best rallying point for a theoretical insurgency that one could hope for, and would do much to discredit the NTC as foreign puppets.

African Union troops – rarely very effective – are also largely out of the question. The AU was a staunch backer of Qaddafi and is hated by most rebels, who believe (despite scant evidence) that many of its members contributed mercenaries to help Qaddafi fight against them. Over the years, Qaddafi has poured billions into the AU and various African wars, something that's stirred resentment amongst millions of Libyans who thought that money would have been better spent at home, and resented having their sons sent to fight and die in places like Chad.

Is there a chance for a post-Qaddafi civil war in Libya? Yes. Should the international community, particularly those who helped drive Qaddafi from his perch, be looking for ways to help if it comes to pass? Absolutely. But they should be looking to Iraq for warnings, not answers.

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