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News Opinion Editorial

The battle of Tripoli

Col. Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year misrule of the oil-rich African nation of Libya appears finally to be nearing an end. The rebels' surprisingly swift advance into the capital, Tripoli, over the weekend brought large parts of the government's last remaining stronghold under their control, with only isolated pockets of resistance around Mr. Gadhafi's fortified compound. Barring any unforeseen reversal of fortunes, a total military collapse of the regime could occur imminently.

These events have heartened the rebel groups that have been battling the dictator over the last six months of often inconclusive fighting, which likely would have ended quite differently without NATO airstrikes on Mr. Gadhafi's forces and Western military training and equipment. But having reached the verge of toppling the regime, leaders of the uprising now must turn to confront the perhaps more daunting challenge of stabilizing the country once the fighting ends.

Mr. Gadhafi, whose exact whereabouts are unknown, remains the unpredictable wild card in the endgame now unfolding. Even if he voluntarily relinquishes power under pressure from international leaders, he will bequeath his successors a country in which thousands of young, hastily trained and heavily armed rebels — along with perhaps equal numbers of loyalist die-hards — are left roaming the streets, in the absence of any strong central authority. The Libyan transitional national government's first and most urgent task will be to begin disarming these fighters and establishing its authority throughout the country before a breakdown in law and order precipitates the kind of widespread looting and civil unrest that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The Libyans enjoy a number of advantages that may allow them to avoid a protracted period of Iraqi-style unrest. For one, the Libyan rebels liberated themselves (albeit with NATO assistance), rather than having their freedom handed to them by foreign troops. Moreover, whatever government eventually emerges there probably won't have to contend immediately with the machinations of meddling neighbors bent on exploiting the country as a pawn in regional power games — as Iraq was for Iran and Afghanistan is for India and Pakistan.

Finally, Libya's new leaders can look to draw upon billions of dollars in assets that were frozen in foreign bank accounts to prevent their being used by Mr. Gadhafi's forces. It's essential for the Western powers who led that effort to quickly devise a system to make those funds available and monitor their use so the transitional government so it can begin reconstruction efforts and repair the country's oil production facilities. The more Libyans themselves are allowed to take charge of their country's future, the better the long-term outlook for their revolution's success.

But even given the relative advantages it enjoys, Libya's immediate problems are daunting. The country has no tradition of democratic governance, and decades of Mr. Gadhafi's iron-fisted rule have effectively precluded the emergence of a viable civil society. Add to that the continuing threat of an insurgency by pro-Gadhafi dead-enders in the former military and intelligence services — along with the possibility of new outbreaks of fighting between competing rebel factions — and a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy is still far from assured.

Nevertheless, events so far appear to have vindicated President Barack Obama's early assumption that the U.S. could indirectly work to weaken Mr. Gadhafi's hold on power by assuming a supporting role, while its NATO allies took the lead in initiating military action against the dictator. Reports over the weekend suggested that American surveillance and communications assets did indeed play a crucial role in the rebels' recent military successes — a role that initially was harshly criticized by some Republicans and Democrats in Congress as well as by most GOP presidential candidates.

The ultimate judgment of Mr. Obama's strategy will depend entirely on what happens next in Libya. But while there are certainly no guarantees, the excessive pessimism voiced earlier by critics of the administration no longer seems justified by events on the ground.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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