After Tyranny: How Can Libya Avoid the Fate of Iraq?

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty Images

Smoke billows from a burning car as a Libyan rebel stands guard outside the women's military accademy in Tripoli on Aug. 22, 2011

Away from the dizzying euphoria on Tripoli's streets, where Libyans have held wild celebrations of the end of Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule, there is a specter that hovers over the scene in the minds of many Libyan officials and Western governments — that of another Arab capital: Baghdad.

As opposition officials began to plot the details of a post-Gaddafi Libya during the past few months, there was an overriding sensitivity to the mistakes made in Iraq eight years ago, when the collapse of a dictator paved the way for years of insurgent war far bloodier and costlier than the fight for freedom itself.

Just as Libyans have done since the night of Aug. 21, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets of Baghdad in March 2003 to celebrate the downfall of Saddam Hussein on the heels of a U.S.-led invasion. Indeed, Gaddafi's and Saddam's careers tracked each other along the way: the coup against Iraq's monarchy by young officers, including Saddam, occurred just 14 months before Gaddafi and other Libyan officers overthrew King Idriss in 1969. Much like Gaddafi did, Saddam build a family autocracy during his 35-year rule, in which his sons held huge economic and military power. And just as seen in the wild joy in Tripoli on Sunday and Monday, Saddam's ouster in Baghdad seemed to open the path to fresh democracy, trumpeted in the West as the region's first dramatic transformation to freedom.

But that is where the similarities end — or so Libyans and Western governments hope. Both said on Monday that that debacle in Iraq after the 2003 invasion was crucial to their thinking as they planned for this moment, when the shattered dictatorship opened the first power vacuum in decades. For one thing, the opposition leaders who are poised to lead the new Libya largely come from Gaddafi's inner ranks, including the probable new head of state Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who until last February was Gaddafi's Minister of Justice, and Mahmoud Gebril, a U.S.-trained economist who led Libya's National Economic Development Council until he defected last February and who could be the new Prime Minister. That makes it impossible to cleanse the new government of those with ties to the old regime, similar to the so-called de-Baathification process implemented by U.S. officials in Iraq that purged the new government of all elements of Saddam's ruling party. "You cannot dismiss everyone who was with the regime, because after 42 years, almost everyone has dealt with the regime," says Molly Tarhuni, a Libyan-British academic who has advised the rebel National Transitional Council in Benghazi since February. "The specter of Iraq has been raised by a lot of people," she says. "There is a solid awareness of the lessons learned by Iraq in Libya by Libyans."

Having raced back from his vacation in Cornwall overnight, British Prime Minister David Cameron huddled with Cabinet Ministers on Monday and afterward told reporters he was mindful of avoiding mistakes made in Iraq, including avoiding all vengeance attacks. He said he had stressed in talks last week with Jalil "the importance of respecting human rights, avoiding reprisals and making sure all parts of Libya can share in the country's future." Mahmud Nacue, chargé d'affaires of the rebel Libyan embassy in London, told the BBC Sunday night that a new government would avoid all retaliations, seeking to put the Gaddafis on trial rather than kill them. "The fighters will turn over every stone to find him and arrest him and to put him in court," Nacue said. "They arrested two of his sons, Saif al-Islam and Mohammed, and they are treating them in a good manner. We think we will do our best to handle everything in a peaceful way."

British officials were quick to underline that they and all the other countries involved in the International Contact Group on Libya have been working "from the prime-ministerial level down" to put a detailed arrangement in place for a post-Gaddafi regime so as to avoid any chaos. The group has met four times since April and produced a plan the rebels then used as a blueprint for their strategy and the constitutional declaration they unveiled Aug. 11. "There was real sense here that important lessons have been learned form Iraq in preserving infrastructure, reaching out to people and having a detailed plan in place," says a British official.

Still, the potential for violence seemed real enough Monday, especially as Gaddafi himself was nowhere to be found. Since he pleaded, in two audio messages broadcast on Libyan television overnight Sunday and Monday, for help defending Tripoli, the Libyan leader has been silent. That raised the concern that Gaddafi might have planned an armed retreat in advance, much as Saddam did in 2003. Also missing was Gaddafi's 28-year-old son Khamis, who until Sunday night led the crack military brigade named for him. The mystery of his whereabouts has raised fears among some that the family might be gearing up for a counteroffensive in the event of being driven from power. "You will recall that after Baghdad fell, all of a sudden the Saddam Fedayeen [armed insurgents] materialized," Harlman Ullman, senior adviser to the Atlantic Council in Washington, told al-Jazeera as crowds cheered Gaddafi's demise in Tripoli early Monday morning. "Despite the euphoria, there is huge turmoil, and quite frankly, we don't have a clue how the National Transitional Council is going to come out," Ullman said. "These are very, very early days, and if history is going to be any guide, we need to be very apprehensive."

Fierce gun battles raged in parts of Tripoli Monday as Gaddafi's last remaining supporters held out. Rebel officials estimated that about 95% of the capital — a breezy Mediterranean seaport of about 2 million people — was under their control. The neighborhood out of the rebels' control includes Gaddafi's al-Azizia compound, a sprawling set of buildings and bunkers on the western edge of the capital in which Gaddafi held court with Western leaders and his inner clique and to which he retreated after NATO's bombing campaign began last March. Fighting also raged near the compound along the Rixos Hotel, where foreign journalists and some remaining regime officials are stationed. With the city in upheaval, there is no accurate measure of Gaddafi's holdouts. Regime officials in Tripoli have told reporters in recent months that many civilians had been armed and trained and could be called upon to defend the capital if rebels invaded.

Tarhuni says rebel officials played out potential scenarios for Tripoli's collapse during their months of planning in Benghazi. Compared with the game-playing then, the violence on Monday seemed calm, she says. "One was expecting a lot more destruction, where Gaddafi was seen to be razing the city," she says. "Everybody was planning for the worst." And on Monday, hoping for the best.

— With reporting by Jay Newton-Small / London