Libya rebels, triumphant in Tripoli, now face a different kind of battle
How the rebels address immediate challenges – including regional and tribal divisions, as well as a thirst among some for revenge – will signal their ability to govern fairly in a new Libya.
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In the early days of the uprising, ragtag militias surged westward along Libya’s coast toward Qaddafi’s hometown, Sirte, the gateway to Tripoli. But they were often overrun and forced to retreat just as quickly, despite a curtain of airstrikes from NATO to support them.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, in the western mountains, a separate network of rebels coalesced, demonstrating greater organization and tactical planning. Joining up with
fighters in besieged cities like Misurata and Zawiyah, they severed Qaddafi’s key supply lines and led the triumphal capture of nearly all of Tripoli on Aug. 21.
Within a few days, the NTC, which has been recognized by the West as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, began to decamp from its Benghazi headquarters to establish itself in Tripoli as the sovereign power of a new Libya.
But a large portion of the population is now heavily armed and remains beyond the reach of any centralized authority.
It’s possible that if Qaddafi somehow slips out of the noose that’s tightening around him, perhaps to southern areas where some tribes remain loyal to him, he could become a rallying point for an insurgency, a spoiler for the new Libya.
That risk is small – Libya’s people own this uprising in a way the Iraqis never owned theirs, and their far superior infrastructure will prevent the sort of discontent that let Iraq’s insurgency flourish. But capturing Qaddafi would do much to snuff out any insurgency, as well as encourage Libyans still afraid to throw in their lot behind the new order led by the NTC.
Rebel fighter Bashir Budufira says a rebel brigade was sent to Sirte to convince residents to lay down their arms. “I think 75 percent of the people there want a peaceful solution, but there are some people from Qaddafi’s tribe and ... they have committed murder, so they’re afraid they’re going to be punished if they give up.”
‘This is forbidden!’
As rebels in Tripoli wildly fired guns in celebration while others hunted Qaddafi on Aug. 25, there was grim evidence of how volatile the capital remains.
Just outside Qaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound, the symbolic heart of his regime that had been ransacked in the past few days, two dozen bodies lay in the dust, each wearing the green wristband normally worn by pro-Qaddafi fighters. But the wristbands looked suspiciously clean compared with the state of their clothing.
Two of the dead had their hands bound, and one – still hooked up to an IV tube – appeared to have been receiving medical care in a makeshift field hospital when he was killed. Nearby rebels said Qaddafi’s troops were responsible for the killings. But it seems just as plausible that rebel fighters had taken revenge on their enemies.
That was not the only sign of trouble. Outside a warehouse filled with electronics and air conditioners, a traffic jam of looters – ignoring the danger of pro-Qaddafi fighters still on nearby rooftops – came to claim their share of the new Libya.
“This warehouse used to be the property of the Qaddafis. Now it belongs to the Libyan people,” said one man armed with an AK-47.
The looting continued until a convoy of rebel soldiers arrived. The fighters angrily shot in the air and ordered people to return the looted appliances.
“This is haram [forbidden],” shouted an angry rebel.
To be sure, early signs in Tripoli indicated that the rebel militias who poured into the city from the Nafusah Mountains and from neighboring towns were cooperating with each other, if chaotically.