We can’t let ourselves be scarred by Iraq

Published in The Guardian (February 24th, 2011)

It gets worse and worse. Muammar Gaddafi has declared war on his people and the streets of Libya are flowing with blood. Yesterday I heard of people watching their own air force attack the suburbs of Tripoli, leaving roads filled with burned bodies. When they tried to recover the corpses of friends and relatives, they risked being shot by gangs of roaming mercenaries.

It is like an apocalyptic Hollywood film. There are even rumours of systematic male rape in this elegant city of jacaranda trees and Italianate buildings. Who knows what is true and what is false, only that there is a whirlwind of terror amid a media blackout as the people of Libya try to overthrow the despot who has ruined their country these past 41 years.

Just a fortnight ago I was in these cities – Benghazi, al-Bayda, Tripoli – talking to people preparing for their day of rage. Now in the east of the country victory is in sight, with the old flag flying in place of Gaddafi’s green pennant. But in the west, Gaddafi has vowed to fight to the death and is keeping his word in the most brutal manner possible.

Can anything be done to expedite his overthrow before the numbers of dead and wounded rise still further? In Tunisia and Egypt it was the army that held the balance of power and eventually prodded the ageing dictators into retirement. But in Libya the army has been repeatedly purged since Gaddafi knew it posed a potential threat;  it was how he seized power, after all. And the strongest forces are under his family’s control.

It is fine to talk of freezing assets, sanctions and stopping arms sales, but these will not make a difference in time to end the tyranny. Indeed, the bigger question for when order is restored is why we sold sniper rifles and tear gas to such a regime, given its murderous history and repressive character. And why we allowed obviously corrupt people to stash stolen wealth in western banks and property.

Clearly the United Nations must make a forceful response, condemning the regime for turning on its people with such savagery and making it clear those involved will be held responsible in the international courts. And if Nato can impose a no-fly zone then they should do so immediately – even if this means bombing the airports being used to send up planes to kill and maim innocent people. There is no time for hesitation.

But this may not be enough to stop the bloodshed. Gaddafi is holed up in Bab al-Azizia, a massive military compound in the south of Tripoli. It is protected by thick walls studded with squat concrete towers and bristling with machine guns. He is likely to have with him his family and several hundred of the most trusted security forces under his son Khamis, the man who recruited all those mercenaries. Even the bravest citizens would hesitate to confront such a stronghold.

There is word of divisions among the revolutionary leadership. The smoothest resolution – beyond his capture or death – is for enough of these people to peel away from the regime. Even at the highest levels there are people who want reform. But there are suggestions that key figures are being held under house arrest at the air base. This may explain why we have not heard from Abdel Salam Jalloud, Gaddafi’s childhood friend and one-time deputy, who fell out with the “Great Leader” but remains an influential voice.

Perhaps the crisis will end as suddenly as it began. But Gaddafi has proved time and again that he will do whatever it takes to stay in power. So if the days of bloodshed turn into weeks, the severity of the crisis unfurling in Libya could pose once again profound questions for the world.

The international community may be forced to make a choice: does it sit back and prevaricate while people are massacred, as it has so often in the past. Or does it refuse to be scarred by the foolishness of the Iraq invasion and show that it can act when there is unacceptable barbarism.

For it is possible the only solution is a rapid intervention led by perhaps Egypt or Tunisia, whose armies have won respect in recent weeks, to winkle Gaddafi out of his air base and end his appalling regime. It would have to be endorsed by the Arab League, and such events are highly dangerous and unpredictable. The alternative, however, may be worse.

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