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gad gone

The day Gaddafi died was the day that it all changedThe year of revolution: The war was going nowhere -- then, suddenly, the dictator was driven from power. Kim Sengupta reflects on the dramatic reversal that changed the face of Libya forever . . .

THE rebels were outgunned and exhausted, there was no sign of the promised Western air strikes and Benghazi, the capital of 'Free Libya', lay at the mercy of Muammar Gaddafi.

The local people were in despair, knowing that Gaddafi would kill them if he made it in to the city.

But then the bombing did begin, saving Benghazi and altering the course of the war. Colonel Gaddafi had waited too long before making the final push into the heartland of the uprising which began months earlier.


Fatally, he had been busy concentrating on the enclaves of rebellion nearer to Tripoli, at Misrata and Zawiyah. The time had allowed the opposition's National Transitional Council (NTC) to declare they were in charge of half the country, and gather the international support that would save them.

The regime, realistically, had no chance of a military victory after Nato intervened. The ambiguous terms of the UN resolution 1973, which allowed the establishment of a "no-fly zone" to translate into a fully fledged air campaign, coupled with the failure of Russia and China to use their veto, allowed the First World's most advanced military machine to systematically destroy one from the Third World.

The Libyan dictator could have saved himself from his terrible fate at the end, when he was captured, tortured and killed as he tried to flee the last regime stronghold, Sirte. I saw his body on public display at a meat warehouse along with his dead son Muatassim. Standing beside me watching families queuing up to see the bodies was Abdullah Hakim Husseini, one of the rebel fighters from Misrata who had captured him. "We were shocked as he was at first when we caught him," he said. "I don't think anyone thought he would be there. We thought he would be in Niger or Algeria."

But, as the subsequent capture of Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam showed, it would have been difficult for Gaddafi to have remained free at the very end. The window for a deal would have been in the early summer when there were proposals to send the dictator and his family into exile with immunity from prosecution. At the time, the conflict was at an impasse, and doubts were rising in the US and Europe. Despite relentless Nato bombing and a naval blockade, the inept rebels in the east failed to make much headway. The assassination of their commander, Abdel Fatah Younis, by his own side demonstrated that the Benghazi-based opposition was degenerating into an internecine feud.

Things were different in Misrata. The coastal city 120 miles from Tripoli endured a fierce siege with resilience and courage.

Despite the daily battering, the revolutionaries in Misrata were already thinking ahead to the post-Gaddafi landscape.

The Misrata men were dismissive of the fighting prowess of their comrades in the east, but worried about the reactionary form of Islam being espoused by some of the leaders there.

There were mutterings about the role of Qatar. The tiny Gulf state had become the biggest backer of the rebels in the Arab world. British and French commanders flew there to plan the ground campaign; the sheikhdom was pouring money and arms into Libya.


The Qataris were pushing for two men they had sponsored to move into positions of influence. Ali al-Sallabi, a deeply conservative cleric, was promoted as spiritual mentor of the revolution. Abdulhakim Belhaj, a former leader of the Libyan Islamist Fighting Group, became the Tripoli military commander after the regime's fall.

Commander Belhaj is now suing the British Government. Documents found in the offices of the regime's intelligence service revealed Mark Allen, then MI6's head of counterterrorism, crowing about the part his service played in sending him to face torture and imprisonment in Libya.

Belhaj did not get the place in the government he had expected, and in general the Islamists were disappointed. The interim cabinet is one of technocrats. Elections due to be held next year will give a clearer picture.

Four decades of Gaddafi have meant that political institutions and parties have to be built afresh.

There are also questions about the long-term effect on the Libyan psyche of the civil war. There is no credible evidence to support claims of 50,000 dead made by an NTC official; the real figure is likely to be far less.

But it is the case that both sides committed atrocities.

In Tripoli, for example, rebels killed regime soldiers at a field hospital, clearly marked with the symbols of the Islamic Crescent. Some of the dead were on stretchers, attached to intravenous drips. Some were on the back of an ambulance which had been stopped and automatic rifles emptied on the patients.

It remains to be seen whether a reckoning comes in the future.