Qaddafi vows to stay or die as 'a martyr'; world weighs limited options

Diplomats gathered in the UN Security Council Tuesday to consider events in Libya. But the international community is likely to think twice before pushing the martyr-talking Qaddafi to the brink.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Protesters shout anti-government slogans near a bombed ammunitions store in Tobruk Tuesday. Bursts of celebratory machine gun fire echoed through the streets of the coastal city Tuesday as protesters trashed a monument to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's most treasured work.

Some officials in Washington are calling for the United States to consider reimposing sanctions on Libya, and at least one United Nations official says the Libyan regime should be investigated for possible crimes against humanity in the wake of deadly antiprotester violence in the North Africa country.

But a defiant Muammar Qaddafi – the country’s dictator of more than 41 years and a longtime Western nemesis – vowed in a national TV appearance Tuesday to cling to power or “die [in Libya] as a martyr.” As diplomats gathered in the UN Security Council Tuesday afternoon to consider events in Libya, it was unclear what, if any, leverage the US or the world has to influence Mr. Qaddafi and the course of events in his country.

Early in the past decade, Qaddafi agreed to give up his country’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs and to meet other US demands, motivated at least in part by a desire to shed his pariah status and rejoin the international community. But now, with his hold on power on the line, Qaddafi may dig in his heels and battle to resist outside pressures, some regional experts say.

Given the lack of any clear institutional alternative to Qaddafi, some say, the international community is likely to think twice before pushing him to the brink.

“The US and the West don’t have anywhere near the leverage in Libya that they had or have with either Egypt or Tunisia,” says Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia regional director for Stratfor, a global-security forecasting company that is based in Austin, Texas. “But even if they did, there is a very important key difference influencing [the international community’s] actions on this,” he adds. “There is no alternative force, no cohesive institutions to take power should this regime crumble, and so the alternatives become civil war and chaos.”

A case in point is the Libyan military. Unlike the Egyptian military – which has strong ties to the US and which eventually assumed power when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down – Libya’s military forces are “deeply fractured” and have been kept weak by a suspicious Qaddafi, says Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

“The military in Libya doesn’t have its own corporate identity that ties it to some embodiment of the state,” he says. Describing the US military-to-military relationship with Libya as “nascent,” Mr. Wehrey says that Qaddafi has been careful to squash any reformist wing in the military (or anywhere else in the government) that might have provided an opening for outside influence.

The lack of US leverage is not stopping some officials from proposing tough measures against the Libyan regime. US Sen. John Kerry (D) Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Tuesday that the US should consider reimposing economic sanctions on Libya that were lifted under President Bush. International oil companies should immediately cease operations there, Senator Kerry says.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said in a statement that Libya’s “widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population” should be investigated in the International Criminal Court as possible crimes against humanity.

But some analysts expect that the UN Security Council – which was meeting Tuesday afternoon at the request of the Libyan UN delegation’s breakaway diplomats – will limit itself to at most a statement condemning attacks on civilians and urging government restraint.

“At the UN, you’re going to have the Arab regimes and others whispering in our and other countries’ ears, ‘Do you really want to push this too far, when what you might end up with is civil war or anarchy?’ ” says Mr. Bokhari of Stratfor.

The one possible leadership alternative in Libya might be the country’s tribal leaders, he adds. But other Arab regimes ruling over tribal societies – from Saudi Arabia to Jordan and Yemen – will not want to see the kind of “real regime change” that a shift to tribal governance would constitute.

“Saudi Arabia has no love for Qaddafi,” Bokhari says, “but they are terrified of the upheaval they see and what the alternative to him might be.”

Wehrey of RAND says that the US once hoped that the “reformist” elements within Qaddafi’s so-called “men of the tent” – the tribal leaders and relatives he consulted with – might press the regime to open up. But that pressure was never allowed to develop, he says.

And at this point, he adds, Qaddafi is hunkering down and unlikely to heed anyone. “At one time, he saw some of the multilateral institutions like the UN or the African Union as vehicles by which he could raise his own stature, but we’re past that,” Wehrey says. “Now it’s pure survival.”

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