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
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