| 8°C Dublin

Libya divided as country grapples with a stalemate


A rebel fighter adjusts a machine gun atop a pick-up truck on the front line at the western entrance of Ajdabiya yesterday

A rebel fighter adjusts a machine gun atop a pick-up truck on the front line at the western entrance of Ajdabiya yesterday

A rebel fighter adjusts a machine gun atop a pick-up truck on the front line at the western entrance of Ajdabiya yesterday

The conflict between pro and anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya could, according to Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister who has fled to Britain, turn the country into another Somalia.

The ingredients are certainly there for a prolonged conflict. Claims that Muammar Gaddafi is about to fall sound unnervingly similar to predictions in 1991 that Saddam Hussein was going to lose power in Iraq after his calamitous defeat in Kuwait and uprisings by Shia and Kurds that he brutally crushed.

In fact, Saddam survived for another 12 years and was finally only overthrown by an American and British invasion that plunged the country deeper than ever into violence from which it has still not recovered. Could the same thing happen with Gaddafi?

It no longer seems likely, as it did during the first few weeks of the uprising, that he will soon be fleeing for his life from Tripoli or will be the victim of a coup by his own lieutenants.

Instead, Gaddafi appears to be stabilising his authority and may be there for months or even years. On the ground there is a military stalemate. Small forces from both sides have captured and recaptured the town of Ajdabiya over several weeks, but neither has been able to land a knockout blow.

Gaddafi has proved he is the most powerful player in Libya. Air strikes by the US, France and Britain aimed at stopping Gaddafi's troops taking Benghazi have had success. But it is still only the threat of Nato air strikes that is preventing Gaddafi's men capturing Benghazi today just as they almost did a few weeks ago.

The opposition leaders comfort themselves with the belief that Tripoli and the east of this vast country is bubbling with unrest that will ultimately boil over and force out Gaddafi and his family. It might happen that way, but there is little sign of it.

For the moment Libya is effectively partitioned with the dividing line running along the old frontier between the historic provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Gaddafi's troops may not be able to advance in the face of air strikes, but they also have not retreated pell-mell after heavy losses.

Libyans are new to war; casualties have as yet not been heavy. In Benghazi, petrol is still cheap and the electricity supply almost constant, aside from a three-hour-a-day black-out. But there is a deep fear that if Gaddafi did take the city his troops, denounced as being largely mercenaries by the rebel leadership, would, as one Benghazi resident put it, "kill all the men and rape all the women".

The strength of the Transitional National Council is its international political and military support. It is less good at organising a functioning government. As with other Arab uprisings, the opposition is particularly effective at mobilising demonstrations and winning the sympathy of the international media.

When an African Union delegation visited here this week to propose ceasefire terms, which did not include the departure of Gaddafi, the crowd of hostile demonstrators outside the hotel where the meeting was taking place seemed better organised than the rebel leaders inside. Protesters denied there would be any civil war in Libya because the struggle was between the Libyan people on one side and a hated dictator on the other.

Unfortunately, the situation is not so clear cut. Against the odds, Gaddafi and his family are unlikely to go away. Libya is effectively divided into two halves. The longer the conflict goes on, and Libyans are forced to take sides, the more it becomes a civil war. The outcome of this conflict, moreover, will be decided by foreign powers, potentially enabling Gaddafi to present himself as a Libyan nationalist defending his country against imperial control.

It would take a long time to reduce Libya to the level of Somalia, but civil conflicts and the hatreds they induce build up their own momentum once the shooting has begun. But one of the good things about Libya is that so many young men -- unlike Afghans and Iraqis of a similar age -- do not know how to use a gun. This will not last. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent