New York Times
John F. Burns
August 22, 2011
LONDON — Nearly 20 years ago, on the eve of the Persian Gulf war, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi protested when a visiting reporter compared him to Saddam Hussein, rejecting the suggestion that Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had caused him to supplant Colonel Qaddafi as the West’s principal nemesis in the Arab world.
“Saddam No. 1 Bad Boy?” he asked incredulously, seated outside his tent in his Tripoli command compound. “No! No! Qaddafi is No. 1. Only Qaddafi!”
As rebels rolled into Tripoli in the past two days, Colonel Qaddafi’s circumstances again drew comparisons to Mr. Hussein. Like the Iraqi leader in 2003, he had vowed to defeat the enemy at the gates of his capital, only to find his outer defenses, including his son Khamis’s widely-feared paramilitary unit, the 32nd Brigade, crumbling under rebel assault and NATO bombs.
In 2003, two of Mr. Hussein’s sons, including his likely heir, fled Baghdad without firing a shot; on Sunday, two other sons of Colonel Qaddafi, including his chosen heir, Seif al-Islam, surrendered quickly to the rebels.
In another respect, too, Colonel Qaddafi appeared to have emulated the former Iraqi leader. As tumult gripped his capital, he disappeared. As American tanks seized the center of Baghdad, Mr. Hussein stood atop a Volkswagen Passat outside one of Baghdad’s main Sunni mosques and promised to stand with his people.
He then disappeared for eight months until he surfaced again, literally, into the custody of American troops standing over his spider hole. In Colonel Qaddafi’s last radio address, he dismissed the Libyan rebels as “rats,” before he, too, vanished.
But the intense fighting around the Libyan leader’s Bab al-Aziziya command compound in central Tripoli suggested another parallel with Mr. Hussein. Rebel commanders on the ground appeared to have concluded that Colonel Qaddafi, after months of NATO bombing that had obliterated almost everything above ground in the compound, had retreated into a vast underground complex beneath the ruins — a last-ditch refuge similar to those that Mr. Hussein had underneath several of his Baghdad palaces.
Although elements of Colonel Qaddafi’s presidential guard reported as having defected in accordance with a deal cut earlier with rebel leaders, the Libyan leader, if somewhere in the maze of bunkers, appeared to be standing his ground, as he has always said he would.
But NATO and the rebels had another possibility to deal with, tracing back to what happened in Baghdad: that Colonel Qaddafi, taking a leaf from Mr. Hussein, had allowed much of his capital to be taken quickly as part of a tactical retreat that was preliminary to entrapping the rebels, or to a longer-term fight of the kind that evolved into the insurgency in Iraq, still unsuppressed after more than eight years and tens of thousands of dead.
That possibility merged into the larger nightmare, one that appeared to be obsessing Western leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and President Obama: that having committed themselves to the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi and providing the crucial margin of military power to do so, they might only have opened a Pandora’s box of menacing possibilities.
Could Libya, like Iraq with its dictator removed, descend into bloody fratricide and civil war? And would the West, careful thus far to limit its military involvement mostly to airstrikes, get drawn into the chaos?
Mr. Cameron was one of an array of Western officials who hastened to differentiate the fast-moving events in Tripoli from the looting, revenge killings, and sectarian violence that followed the invasion of Iraq. After returning rapidly from a family break in Cornwall, England — the second time in a month that he had abandoned vacation time, the first coming two weeks ago when he flew home from Tuscany to deal with Britain’s worst rioting in decades — he told reporters at Downing Street that “stabilization experts” in London had been working for months with the Libyan rebels to plan for a smooth transition in Tripoli.
Measures already in hand, he said, included insistence, in contacts with Mustapha Abdul Jalil, head of the rebels’ transitional council, that the rebels respect human rights and avoid reprisals. He said that the future government promised to make sure that “all parts of Libya can share in the country’s future,” a coded way of saying that the eastern-based tribes who have been dominant in the rebel movement not punish the tribes in the west who have sustained Colonel Qaddafi.
The rebels also are asking that medical facilities, communication networks, and supplies of electricity, fuel and water be maintained or repaired; and that other forms of aid be hastened to achieve a return to normalcy as soon as possible.
The list sounded like a rule book built on the mistakes critics have identified as central to the American experience in Iraq. But some analysts have argued that even a copybook plan for “nation-building” after the 2003 invasion — one that would have handed power quickly to Iraqis, kept Mr. Hussein’s army intact, and guaranteed the jobs of Baath Party loyalists who might have helped the government to function — might not have prevented the descent into chaos.
Now, the question is whether the best intentions of the West, and of rebel leaders, will be enough to counter powerful impulses in Libya that could overwhelm the euphoria greeting rebel forces, and push the country to a darker future of political, tribal and sectarian strife.