Did the Libyan rebels boast too soon of their success?
On Wednesday, a defiant Muammar Gaddafi proclaimed that the fight to overthrow his 40-year rule is far from over, despite the loss of his compound in Tripoli to rebel forces and the fact that most of his army -- even those most loyal to him -- has simply melted away. The dictator's stubbornness in holding out is only one of the major problems that will face the new Libyan government as rebels seek to gain control of the security situation, wrest frozen funds from Western governments to deal with a deepening humanitarian crisis, and work to build an elusive unity upon which the new Libyan society will rest.
"Martyrdom or victory!" said the dictator in a recorded radio address broadcast by one of the only friendly media outlets not in rebel hands. The statement reflects the fact that despite the military setbacks, there are still areas of the capital, as well as several towns and cities in southern and western Libya, where the rebels can expect fierce resistance from the dictator's dwindling forces.
Details are just beginning to emerge that explain how the rebels were able to make such rapid advances into the capital city, including the insertion of armed "sleeper cells" and a coordinated assault -- including a textbook amphibious attack -- that sent the Libyan army reeling.
The National Transitional Council (TNC), the governing body of the rebellion, has offered a $1.3 million bounty for Gaddafi's head -- literally, dead or alive. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the TNC, announced a pardon for any of the dictator's inner circle "who kill Gaddafi or capture him." The TNC is also in the process of forming a working government, asking for frozen funds from Western governments to start rebuilding the war torn country and purchase badly needed food and medical supplies.
While his whereabouts are unknown, it is believed that Gaddafi is not in Tripoli, although his son, Seif al-Islam, who at one time was believed to be captured by the rebels, made an appearance outside of the Hotel Rixos urging resistance to the insurgents. The Rixos is where several dozen Westerners were held by Gaddafi loyalists until late Wednesday afternoon when the International Red Cross negotiated their release.
But the sudden appearance of one of Gaddafi's sons whom the rebels announced had been captured calls into question other rebel claims regarding how firmly they actually control the capital, as well as progress they are making in other towns and cities in Libya where Gaddafi loyalists are still putting up a struggle. Ordinary citizens in Tripoli are much more circumspect in celebrating a rebel victory, as there are still very few civilians who venture out of their houses, and businesses remain shuttered.
Despite those questions, NATO commanders appear confident that the pro-Gaddafi forces are on their last legs. With air strikes in Tripoli limited by the proximity of civilians, the Alliance's role has been reduced to gathering intelligence in the capital using drones and patrolling the outskirts of the city guarding against any concentration of loyalist forces who might attempt to reinforce Gaddafi's beleaguered troops.
NATO's caution is well founded, given the possible backlash against the rebels if bombings were to inadvertently kill civilians. "Operations are obviously moving in favor of the rebels every day, so you don’t want to do things that would be counterproductive to that progress," said one American defense official.
How much more fighting needs to be done is unknown, but despite the army's disintegration, there is still a hard core of several thousand militiamen bound to Gaddafi by tribal and clan ties who might be expected to fight to the end. Most have left Tripoli and either melted back into civilian society, blending in among their relatives and tribe or, as some have speculated, headed toward Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte where clashes between loyalists and rebels broke out following the apparent capture of Tripoli.
The Tripoli operation had been in the works for months. Ex-pat Libyans who fought in the war with Chad back in the 1980s, but had a falling out with Gaddafi, formed "The Libyan Salvation Front," taking raw recruits, training them in the western mountains, and then deploying them along the road to Tripoli. Qatar also sent troops to train these "Tripoli Brigades," who were the vanguard in the assault on the capital.
The NTC, with NATO's help, also formed irregular armed units inside the city limits of Tripoli itself. They were activated when the Tripoli Brigades approached the city, probably using mosques to pass messages from the TNC to the "sleeper cells." An amphibious assault from Misrata delivered hundreds of the rebels' most experienced fighters. The months-long siege of that port city forged troops experienced in urban fighting, and this stood the rebellion in good stead when it began to systematically clear neighborhoods of armed resistance.
But as long as Gaddafi is at large, he will be a threat to the stability of the new regime. Ideally, the dictator would be exiled to someplace that would welcome him -- Sudan has been prominently mentioned because it is right next door to Libya. But also Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela might serve as a home for the displaced dictator.
But Gaddafi's former intelligence chief, who defected last weekend, doesn't think he will surrender or go to into exile. Abdel-Salam Jalloud told an Italian radio station, "I think it's impossible that he'll surrender," adding, "He doesn't have the courage, like Hitler, to kill himself."
That may be. But regardless of what fate befalls Gaddafi, the TNC has a monumental job ahead of it. The council announced that several TNC officials had arrived in Tripoli to oversee the transition. Meanwhile, the US will ask the UN Security Council to immediately release $1.5 billion in frozen assets by the end of the week. This should set the stage for the release of another $5 billion requested by the TNC who face a humanitarian crisis without an immediate infusion of cash.
Surprising opposition to the release of more funds is coming from South Africa, which does not object in principle to releasing money for humanitarian concerns, but is balking at recognizing the TNC as a legitimate government. The South Africans want to confer with the African Union and wish to delay the release of the bulk of the funds. "Every other member of the council is supportive so we’re hopeful things will progress,” one Western diplomat said. All told, there are $160 billion in frozen assets being held up by the UN and Western banks.
But the major immediate concern for the TNC is security. To that end, they have asked the police to remain at their posts, although those wanted for crimes during the crackdown will be arrested and tried.
Of great concern is the fact that there are thousands of ill-trained young men walking around the city of Tripoli with automatic weapons and setting up make-shift checkpoints. The task of organizing security will be done in conjunction with several other nations including Jordan, Britain, France, and Qatar. Western troops are not expected to take part in securing the country.
Another major issue is the unity of the TNC. Over the last several months, there has been much infighting and not much agreement among the several factions that make up the council. Secularists who want democracy, Islamists who want Sharia, socialists, environmentalists, and others all want a say in who next runs Libya. Complicating matters are tribal jealousies that have split the council along traditional lines. If a prolonged power struggle is in the offing, the fractious nation could become an incubator of radicalism, or in the worst case, become a hostile Sharia state, marginalizing and repressing secular liberal elements.
Despite questions about the extent of rebel gains, it appears very likely that Muammar Gaddafi is finished. However, getting rid of a dictator might seem in retrospect to have been the easy part in rebuilding a country riven by factions, plagued by security issues, and fearful of an unknown future.