Why Libya's Qaddafi could survive like Saddam in 1991

Rather than the euphoric victories in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's conflict now evokes another uprising: Iraqis' 1991 failed bid to overthrow Saddam Hussein, who ruled for another 12 years.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
The Kingdom of Libya's flag is placed in front of a refinery in Ras Lanuf on March 8. The flag which was used when Libya gained independence from Italy in 1951, has been used as a symbol of resistance against Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, in the recent protests.

With cool confidence, a Libyan expatriate arrives at this remote border with a small fortune in donations and imminent regime change on his mind.

From the outside, it looks easy: He predicts that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has perhaps 10 days before the people-power Arab revolt sweeps him away as it already has the authoritarian leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

“Every time someone dies, [the opposition] gets stronger,” says the Libyan with a North American accent, who could not be named. “Qaddafi is going to have to kill everybody. If that’s the price of freedom, I guess we are willing to pay it.”

But rather than the euphoric victories in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's conflict now evokes another uprising: Iraqis' 1991 bid to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It, too, began with hope but ended in despair as the dictator brutally suppressed antigovernment rebels and ruled for another 12 years.

“In 1991, from President Bush downwards, the world assumed that Saddam Hussein would be swept from power, and they didn’t have to really do much but hold the country in isolation and the Iraqis would do the rest,” says Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at Queen Mary, University of London. “We have a similar situation here to 1991, with the international community assuming [Qaddafi] will go very soon.”

But Dr. Dodge adds that despite the efforts of opposition fighters, who have taken control of much of the east from their base in Benghazi, the current counterattack by forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi means that he might still consolidate his position and remain in power.

“You may well have a new status quo in Libya, with a divided country and a regime strong enough to survive,” says Dodge, who is also an expert on comparative Middle East politics at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. “Talking to people in Tripoli … it seems to me that the core of Qaddafi’s support base and his Army are secure enough to hold Tripoli, and then you’ve got the traditional Benghazi-Tripoli split.”

Qaddafi offer to rebels

In Libya, nothing can be ruled out. The rebels' momentum appears to have slowed in recent days, but talk is growing in Washington and other Western capitals of imposing a no-fly zone or other measures to boost their efforts.

On Tuesday, reports emerged that Qaddafi had sent envoys to offer a deal, in which he would step aside in return for safe passage, for his family keeping their wealth, and for immunity from prosecution.

Tripoli denounced the reports as “lies.” The opposition reported that they replied with counterdemands.

Rebel forces have already seized control of the eastern third of the country, declared an interim government in the second-largest city, Benghazi, and pushed their offensive westward in haphazard manner, using weaponry looted from military stores despite little training or discipline.

Push toward Tripoli stalls

But dreams of riding all the way to Tripoli – where Qaddafi has ridiculed the opposition as “terrorists” and drug addicts – are stalling along the front line.

Antiregime activists remain optimistic. But similar optimism was easily found in Iraq in 1991.

Back then, simultaneous rebellions by Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south aimed at taking advantage of Baghdad’s weakness after the 1991 Gulf War, in which US-led troops forced the Iraqi military out of Kuwait. Despite unbridled enthusiasm – and many joyfully desecrated posters of Saddam – the uprisings were brutally crushed.

Despite the creation of a breakaway Kurdish enclave, and the most crippling sanctions imposed in modern times, Hussein held onto power until he was deposed in 2003 by a “shock and awe” air campaign and ground invasion of US troops.

“What happened as we know is that Saddam quickly solidified his support base, and the separation of the Kurdish areas from Baghdad actually helped him, because it isolated the contagion; then he used sanctions to strengthen his position,” says Dodge.

Now, he says, Qaddafi faces a similar situation.

“We have revolt in Benghazi, too disorganized to defeat him, which means either [Qaddafi] can roll it back in or he can just take that portion of the country – a thorn in the side of the regime ever since the [1969] revolution – and isolate it. He then falls back on his heartland, where he’s strong … and then solidifies a potentially defendable position.”

Rebels call for no-fly zone

Episodic but largely ineffective air raids by Libyan planes strike panic among the antiregime rebels, just as Iraqi helicopters systematically targeted Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in 1991 – prompting an exodus of more than 1 million Iraqi Kurds across the border to Turkey and Iran.

Images emerging from the Libyan front line look eerily similar to those from 1991, with clusters of rebel civilian vehicles – some of them trucks mounted with 12.7mm antiaircraft guns – parked in open expanses of ground that serve as easy targets for government bombs.

Back in 1991, this reporter fled northern Iraq alongside panicked Kurds, who said that then-President George H.W. Bush had promised to support their uprising, and then failed to do so. With American warplanes flying high overhead but doing nothing to stop the forward march of Iraqi tanks and helicopters, disillusioned Kurds hiked over the mountains to escape with all the possessions they could carry, asking, “Where’s Bush?”

Libya’s rebels are asking for help also, but only in the form of an immediate no-fly zone to prevent Libyan planes and helicopters from attacking. Reports have emerged in the British press that Washington is asking Saudi Arabia to supply weaponry to anti-Qaddafi forces.

Libya's weapons stash

But the widespread expectation that Qaddafi would lose his nerve and step down because of widespread unrest, à la Tunisia and Egypt, is now shifting to resemble the Iraqi playbook of two decades ago.

The tools the Libyan regime can draw upon look impressive on paper. A binge of military procurement in the 1970s and 1980s, along with more recent acquisitions of recent years after Qaddafi renounced nuclear weapons efforts and vowed to destroy chemical weapon stocks, give the impression of a real arsenal.

But the reality may be different, and military units in eastern Libya have defected.

“Libya’s current military leadership presides over a largely stored and surplus catalogue of weaponry with poor maintenance records,” notes a Feb. 18 report by the Congressional Research Service. “The military also lacks sufficient numbers of trained personnel to operate the military equipment currently in its possession.”

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