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UN decision on Libya: Endgame for Qaddafi?

The immediate hope is that the threat alone of international action in Libya will slow Qaddafi down – and perhaps cause some of his supporters to back the rebels instead.

By Staff writer / March 18, 2011

Libyan rebels fled from Ajdabiyah on March 15 after forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi attacked the city, which is only 90 miles from the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi. Rebels rejoiced upon hearing of the UN vote to impose a ‘no fly’ zone.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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Benghazi, Libya

The United Nations Security Coun­cil’s rare – and unusually swift – decision to approve “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Muammar Qaddafi’s regime has lifted the hopes of Libya’s ragtag militias.

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It remains uncertain, however, whether Resolution 1973 can shift the momentum in rebels’ favor after a week of pummeling that brought loyalist forces within 90 miles of their power base in Benghazi.

Libya had declared a cease-fire in compliance with the UN resolution. But the mercurial Qaddafi, who has served longer than any other Arab leader in power and has vowed to fight to his “last drop” of blood, is almost certain to test the willingness of UN members to make good on their March 17 decision.

The immediate hope of France and Britain, who have taken the lead in insisting on protecting the Libyan uprising, is that the threat of action alone will slow Qaddafi down – and perhaps sow doubt in the minds of some of his supporters that they’re backing the right horse.

“A lot of people are marginal supporters and ... they may turn against him,” says Paul Sullivan, a Libya expert at Georgetown University in Washington. “My gut feeling is there will be enough pressure externally to change the tide slowly at first, and then more and more people will jump on board.”

Both countries, and the United States, have the aerial and naval assets to strike Qaddafi’s airfields and air defenses. They could also target his ground forces if they began to push farther east.

Rebel flip-flop on international help

The rebellion – emboldened by protests in Tunisia and Egypt – has had a split personality over international aid. In the early days of the uprising, rebels provided consistent, almost insulted, denials that they needed any international support.

As the situation darkened – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that at least 1,000 Libyans had been killed so far – armed international intervention was seen as necessary to head off a massacre. In the early hours of March 18, Benghazi residents celebrated the passage of the UN resolution on city streets still lined with billboards saying, “No to international intervention. The Libyan people can do this on their own.”

“Hit his tanks, hit his planes, hit him in Bab al-Aziziya,” says young militiaman Ibrahim Abu Bakar, referring to the area of Tripoli where Mr. Qaddafi makes his home. “He’s shown he’ll kill as many of his people as he can to stay in power.”

But an air strike that kills Libyan civilians – or perhaps one that mistakenly targets the rebel militias, who have a fondness for aimlessly firing their weapons into the air – could shift that mood again.

And in word, if not in spirit, the resolution calls for an end to hostilities on both sides. Members of the transitional rebel government in Benghazi have been trying to figure out how to contain the euphoria of their young militiamen, hundreds of whom were vowing to start marching east again after the UN announcement.

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