Libyans rejoice at Gadhafi’s death

0
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

TRIPOLI, Libya — The spectacle of Moammar Gadhafi’s
capture at the mouth of a drain pipe and death in the custody of those
he long oppressed thrilled Libyans but left a sense of unease about the
nation’s ability to emerge from his violent legacy.

Gadhafi’s
death Thursday in his hometown, the coastal city of Sirte, spared
Libyans the prospect that the only leader most had ever known would
continue exhorting die-hard followers to fight. Few believed that, two
months after he had been chased from his capital, Gadhafi was in
position to make a comeback. But he remained a charismatic figure
capable of instigating guerrilla war.

Exultant
Libyans celebrated by firing rifles into the air, a practice that
highlights one of the nation’s great challenges as it tries to build the
democracy its new leaders and foreign allies say they desire — how to
collect thousands of weapons and rein in the militias that now impose
order.

Besides being awash in guns, post-Gadhafi
Libya has a provisional government that is struggling to accomplish its
most basic functions and must surmount regional and tribal divisions.
Its advantages are vast oil wealth and a relatively small population.

“We
have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Mahmoud Jibril, the
transitional government’s de facto prime minister, told reporters in
the capital, Tripoli. “Moammar Gadhafi has been killed.”

In
Washington, President Barack Obama added his voice to those of Western
European leaders whose military power was crucial to ending Gadhafi’s
nearly 42 years in power. “This marks the end of a long and painful
chapter for the people of Libya, who now have the opportunity to
determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya,” Obama said.

But the question remains: Can the nation remain united now that its larger-than-life, common adversary is gone?

Most
agree that Libya’s provisional ruling body, the Transitional National
Council, has earned a degree of legitimacy, despite its struggles to
impose its authority and the fact that its members were not elected.

“We
all now face the challenge of building a new Libya,” Tripoli’s
erstwhile military commander, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, told reporters.

The
prominence of Belhaj, a former Islamist fighter in Afghanistan who says
he was tortured by the CIA and handed over to the Gadhafi regime for
imprisonment, has unnerved some. Rival militia brigades have resisted
Belhaj’s calls to vacate the capital.

Belhaj and
his Islamist allies say they, too, seek a democratic Libya, albeit one
where Islam has a political voice. Gadhafi long viewed Islamists as the
chief threat to his power and jailed hundreds, including Belhaj.

Islamists
in Libya, as in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, appear to be among the
most organized political forces in the aftermath of the revolutions that
swept the region this year.

Gadhafi was the third
long-ruling leader to fall since the outbreak of the so-called Arab
Spring protests. But he became the first to lose his life. Zine el
Abidine ben Ali, the ousted president of Tunisia, where elections will
be held this weekend, fled into exile. In Egypt, former President Hosni
Mubarak is facing criminal charges.

That lesson is
likely to resonate in Syria and Yemen, where rulers are clinging to
power despite months of pressure from the streets.

Months
ago, a censorious Gadhafi chastised the Tunisians and Egyptians for
having toppled their strongman leaders — and, later, when the protests
came to Libya, he vowed to die “a martyr” in his homeland.

His death lacked the glory Gadhafi appears to have imagined.

It
came more than eight months after demonstrations triggered a revolt
that ultimately cost more than 30,000 lives and destroyed several
cities.

For months, the conflict languished in a
stalemate, with rebels holding the eastern city of Benghazi and making
slow gains in the west. But Gadhafi’s remaining power unraveled suddenly
in August, when he and his closest supporters were chased from Tripoli.

His
presence in Sirte was a surprise to many. Despite his ties to the city,
most observers assumed he had escaped south to the Saharan hinterlands,
which offer ample hiding places, pro-Gadhafi tribesmen and escape
routes to neighboring countries, where Gadhafi still had many allies.

Gadhafi
never would have fallen, Libyan revolutionary leaders acknowledge, had
it not been for relentless airstrikes by the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization acting under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians. Critics
charged that NATO far exceeded that mandate — that it became the de
facto air force of the Libyan rebels.

NATO airstrikes on vehicles fleeing Sirte on Thursday morning appear to have played a part in the capture and death of Gadhafi.

Gerard
Longuet, the French defense minister, told reporters that attacks from
French aircraft stopped an 80-vehicle convoy leaving Sirte, where
pro-Gadhafi forces had been cornered for more than a month. That allowed
anti-Gadhafi forces to move in.

A senior U.S.
military official said that a U.S. Predator drone also fired a missile
at fleeing vehicles of pro-Gadhafi forces, but it wasn’t clear if the
target was the convoy carrying Gadhafi.

What happened after the airstrike was murky.

According
to an account on the website of Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite
channel, Gadhafi and some supporters fled and sought shelter in a pair
of concrete drainage pipes below the roadway. Later, fighters posed for
television cameras near one of the graffiti-scarred pipes, with several
vying for the honor of being the one who captured Gadhafi.

Fighters
displayed trophies for the television cameras, including a gold-plated
revolver that supposedly belonged to Gadhafi. By some accounts, a
fighter in a New York Yankees cap may have captured him.

It
appeared that Gadhafi was alive when they caught up with him. An
initial statement from the military command in Misurata said he had been
captured alive, with leg wounds.

Amateur video
showed a man who appeared to be Gadhafi — disheveled, dazed and bloodied
but still alive — amid a group of fighters. According to a BBC
correspondent in Sirte, a dazed Gadhafi asked one militiaman: “What have
I ever done to you?”

Video apparently filmed afterward appeared to show a lifeless Gadhafi on the ground, his eyes half-open, as fighters gawked.

At
his Tripoli news conference, Jibril said Gadhafi was not fatally
wounded when he was captured, and that he had been placed in an
ambulance. But the ambulance was caught in a crossfire that killed the
former leader, Jabril said.

Whether it was a
crossfire or street justice that killed Gadhafi was not a major concern
to those celebrating his death. Triumphant militiamen from Misurata took
custody of Gadhafi’s corpse, transporting it back to the shattered town
that became a symbol of resistance to his rule.

The
death of Gadhafi spared Libya’s provisional rulers a difficult
decision: whether to hand him over to the International Criminal Court
for war crimes prosecution, or to try him in Libya.

The
challenge now is to fulfill the pledge to set a timetable for elections
and the writing of a new constitution after the fall of Sirte, a
daunting problem for a nation long subject to the whims of one man. In
that sense, Libyans face an even greater challenge than Egypt or
Tunisia.

Jibril, a U.S.-educated political
scientist who once served as an economic adviser for Gadhafi, has been
among the new leadership’s most polarizing figures. He is a model for
many secular professionals in Tripoli, but disliked by Islamists and
people from Misurata, which has emerged as a major power center.

Military
officials in Misurata also confirmed the death of Gadhafi’s son
Muatassim, a military commander, and other top aides. There were
unconfirmed reports of the capture and death of Gadhafi’s most prominent
son, Seif Islam, who tried to position himself as his father’s
successor.

And in the cold Tripoli night, the mood
was of a better tomorrow. “With Gadhafi gone, we will be a great
country,” said a guard standing at a checkpoint.

———

©2011 the Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services