12:34 PM EDT, September 1, 2011
With life slowly returning to normal in Tripoli after rebels broke the grip of government forces there last week, the decisions now being made by the National Transition Council will play a key role in determining how Libya's revolution unfolds. Former Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi apparently is on the run, but he remains a dangerous threat to the fledgling government. Meanwhile, tribal and regional divisions that have emerged among the various rebel factions in recent days could complicate efforts to unify the country even after the fighting ends.
Given the extremely fluid nature of developments on the ground at this point, what can the U.S. and the international community do to support a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in Libya, all the while recognizing that ultimately it will be up to the Libyans themselves to chart their country's future?
Clearly, NATO military and technical assistance will remain crucial to the rebels until the last redoubts of pro-Gadhafi forces are secured. Rebel columns converging on the former dictator's hometown of Sirte, which is still in the hands of government loyalists, have demanded the city's surrender by this weekend; if it comes to an all-out battle for the city, NATO air power may be the deciding factor in the outcome.
Just as important as military aid, however, will be Western support for the reconstruction of Libya's war-damaged infrastructure and the repair of its oil fields. Fortunately, the country has billions of dollars in assets frozen in European and American banks that could be used for those purposes. Western officials must begin making those funds available to the new government as soon as practicable, with appropriate safeguards to ensure the money is used to benefit the Libyan people, not line the pockets of government officials and politicians.
Coupled with reconstruction assistance, the country may also need considerable humanitarian aid, at least over the short term, to restore supplies of food, fresh water and medicines that were interrupted by the conflict. The need appears to be especially great in Tripoli, where hospitals are struggling to cope with a huge influx of people injured during the recent fighting.
Until Mr. Gadhafi is either captured or killed, he is likely to remain a preoccupation of the transition government as well as among ordinary Libyans. There is no way of telling whether the rebels' claim to have a lead on the whereabouts of the former dictator and his sons is based on reliable intelligence or is simply wartime propaganda, but in either case the new government will have to decide what to do with him if and when he eventually does surface somewhere, whether in Libya or in some neighboring country like Algeria, where some members of his family reportedly have taken refuge.
The rebels says they want to put Mr. Gadhafi and his family on trial in Libya. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court in the Hague has also issued warrants for his arrest on war crimes charges. Though Mr. Gadhafi's crimes were far reaching, his worst offenses were against his own people, and they have the strongest need to bring him to justice. But that comes with risks. Given that the transition government most likely lacks significant judicial infrastructure, proceedings there might amount to little more than a quick show trial — followed by an equally swift execution á là Iraq's Saddam Hussein. That would probably only serve to inflame the regional and tribal tensions temporarily masked by this year's popular uprising.
The international community could help by urging Libya's new leaders to proceed deliberately if it turns out Mr. Gadhafi is captured alive. The aim should be to give the Libyan people and the world a full accounting of his regime's misdeeds, not a bloody spasm of revenge. Ultimately, however, what happens to Mr. Gadhafi, his family and associates may be out of our hands. The only thing we can be reasonably certain of is that with the collapse of his regime, the hard part is just beginning for whoever succeeds him.
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