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Libya rejoices at Moammar Kadafi's death

The focus in Libya now turns to building a democratic system, collecting thousands of weapons and reining in militias that now impose order.

October 21, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyans celebrate in Martyrs Square in Tripoli, the capital, after hearing that deposed leader Moammar Kadafi had been killed. Kadafi was the third leader to fall since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring protests, but he became the first to lose his life.
Libyans celebrate in Martyrs Square in Tripoli, the capital, after hearing… (Ismail Zitouni, Reuters )

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Beirut — The spectacle of Moammar Kadafi'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.

Kadafi's death Thursday in his hometown, the coastal city of Surt, 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, Kadafi was in a 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.

Photos: Moammar Kadafi | 1942 - 2011

Besides being awash in guns, post-Kadafi 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 Kadafi has been killed."

In Washington, President Obama added his voice to those of Western European leaders whose military power was crucial to ending Kadafi'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 Kadafi 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. Kadafi 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.

Kadafi 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 Kadafi 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 Kadafi 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 Kadafi's remaining power unraveled suddenly in August, when he and his closest supporters were chased from Tripoli.

His presence in Surt 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-Kadafi tribesmen and escape routes to neighboring countries, where Kadafi still had many allies.

Kadafi 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 Surt on Thursday morning appear to have played a part in the capture and death of Kadafi.

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