The details of Muammar Qaddafi's death are still trickling out of Sirte. While the full circumstances of his killing aren't yet clear, beyond the fact that he appeared to meet his end at the hands of Libyan revolutionaries, a new chapter in Libyan history has been opened.
There were early claims that he'd been found cowering in a sewage pipe outside his hometown of Sirte and was murdered by rebels, a bit of irony given that he was fond of describing his opponents as scuttling rats and cockroaches that would be hunted to their death down every alley, inside every home in the country he ruled with an iron fist since seizing power 42 years ago. That detail seems too perfect, from the Libyan rebel's perspective, to be entirely trusted. There were also reports that his convoy came under NATO attack as he tried to flee Sirte, and that he and his followers were then overwhelmed by rebel fighters. NATO confirmed that it attacked a pro-Qaddafi convoy near Sirte this morning.
But that Qaddafi is dead, as his hometown and last bastion was overrun by an army of shopkeepers, students, and laborers, can now be taken to the bank.
Reporters and rebel fighters in Libya also said that a number of his officials and family members were either killed or captured near Sirte. Reuters quotes a rebel military commander, Abdel Majid Mlegta, as saying Qaddafi's military chief, Abu Bakr Younis, was killed, and that one of his sons and his chief spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, were taken alive.
Will Qaddafi's death end Libya's war? That seems likely. The rebels' National Transitional Council now holds Tripoli, the capital, Benghazi, the country's second-largest city, and appears to be consolidating its hold on Sirte, where Qaddafi's Ghadafa tribe is concentrated. The city – which had a disproportionate amount of Libya's oil wealth poured into it during his time in power – was as much a symbol of his power as the Bab al-Azizya compound in Tripoli that he abandoned months ago and that rebels have been steadily dismantling ever since.
As long as Qaddafi remained at large, there was always a chance that he could prove a rallying figure for a counterinsurgency. While my time in Libya in the early days of the uprising convinced me that the vast majority of Libyans wanted to be rid of Qaddafi, he had maintained his rule with the canny distribution of patronage as much as with the judicious use of terror. Many Libyans had benefited from his rule and feared for their own future without him. That a core of fighters would stay loyal, that they would continue to fight against the emergence of a new order in Libya, was possible as long as he was alive.
Now, Qaddafi as a rallying figure has been removed. While there is some hand-wringing today among pundits and supporters of international justice that he wasn't caught alive and brought to trial, thousands have died on both sides of the battle since the war began – and many more died in his torture chambers and prisons during his decades in power. As the architect of a capricious, one-man rule – and of the civil war itself, when he refused to step down amid the public eruption of anger that started on Feb. 15 in Benghazi – his death can be seen as perhaps the least tragic of the whole war.
Who could lead anti-rebel forces?
Who then could lead pro-Qaddafi forces without Qaddafi? His son and protégé Saif al-Islam, who like his father promised to have all the family's enemies put to the sword, remains at large at the time of this writing. But he was a never a figure to inspire the kind of loyalty or fear that his father did. He strikes me as an unlikely leader of an insurgency.
There are still risks ahead in Libya. Armed guerrillas will have to be decommissioned or incorporated into a new army under some kind of central government control. The country is littered with petty tyrants and Qaddafi functionaries. It would be naive to expect some revenge taking won't happen. But keeping that tamped down and, as much as possible, sending a message to the thousands of Libyans who went along to get along with Qaddafi's regime that they can find a place in the new Libya, will be vital to bringing peace. If Libya goes down the road that the US and its local allies pursued in Iraq in 2003 – with tens of thousands of officials in Saddam Hussein's Baath party tossed out of their jobs in the Army and the civil service, that could be a sign of more trouble to come.
The good news for Libya is that its infrastructure is in much better shape now than Iraq's was in 2003 after a decade-plus of sanctions and the shock and awe air campaign that preceded the US-led invasion. The country is more homogeneous than Iraq. And of course much smaller. Before the uprising, Libya's annual oil exports were worth about $40 billion. That's more than $6,000 a year for every one of Libya's 6.5 million people.
Now, much of Libya is in the midst of an uproarious party. There is a lot of work to be done. The NTC needs to begin the process of creating a more stable, representative government. There are real tensions between the east of the country and the west, between Islamists and those who want a more secular-leaning model of government. But with Qaddafi's death, the real transition has begun.
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