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Will a post-Gadhafi Libya look like Iraq?

Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images

Libyan rebels seize boxes of ammunition hidden underground by Gadhafi's forces in the al-Maser forest in southern Tripoli on Thursday. Click on the photo to see a Libya slideshow.

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent

LONDON – Black smoke billowed from parts of the capital. The crack of gunfire echoed off buildings. Rag-tag gunmen manned checkpoints on dozens of street corners, covered in bullet-belts and brandishing RPG launchers. A massive statue symbolizing the dictator’s rule had fallen just two days before. Some were still kicking at his likeness and tearing up his posters.

But many others were keen to withdraw funds from the bank, reopen their shops and put their lives back together. Some were giddy with revolution. Others feared the looting they’d witnessed and warned of worse to come. The people were awash in weapons. The dictator, meanwhile, had disappeared.

This might sound like today’s Tripoli, but this was the scene in Baghdad as our NBC News convoy drove into the war-torn city on April 11, 2003.


Bagdad? Tripoli?
I find myself flashing constantly back to those heady days as I watch the amazing images of the collapse of the Gadhafi regime. It was a collapse which, as with Saddam Hussein’s, outpaced my own expectations. I’m clearly not alone. Here in London, many British papers have been replete with editorials by “experts” recalling early “post-Saddam” Iraq, and drawing comparisons – and mostly differences – with post-Gadhafi Libya. 

Among them, former British Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind neatly laid out the biggest contrasts in an editorial in the Times of London.

First and foremost, Rifkind pointed out that the Libyan people – unlike the Iraqis – fought for and won their freedom. Iraqis, he wrote, had their freedom handed to them. Secondly, Iraqis had to suffer “the humiliation” of a U.S. occupation for years; but there are no “foreign boots” on the ground in Libya, though a small contingent of U.N. peacekeepers may be welcomed to help police Tripoli. Thirdly, the “seeds of civil war” were already planted in Iraq, with deepening bad blood between the Shiite majority, who were suddenly handed power, and Saddam’s Sunnis, who had lost their traditional hold on it.

These differences are real, and Libya is not Iraq for many other reasons. But the rebels, and the NATO coalition that helped them win, are clearly worried about the similarities, and about not repeating the mistakes made in the days and weeks after Saddam’s fall.

Lots of promises
The rebel leadership has promised to include all Libyans in the New Libya. It’s asked policemen to stay at their posts. It claims that Libya will generate enough income through its restored oil industry to pay for its own nation building. And it promises a new constitution, a national referendum, and both free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections.

Encouraging? Of course; but let’s take a step back again in time.

The security vacuum left in Baghdad was filled by over-armed, disoriented U.S. soldiers, who did little more than watch, agog, as anything with value was looted.

Who will fill a similar security vacuum in Tripoli if those Libyan police are too afraid of pro-Gadhafi snipers – or rockets – to actually police the streets? It would seem that unless Gadhafi and his sons are captured or killed, a pro-regime insurgency may well take root quickly. They could do as much damage in Tripoli as the black-clad Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary group loyal to the former Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein, did in and around Baghdad.

In addition, the rebel leadership says it will move “trained” security forces from Benghazi, in the East, to Tripoli, in the West, to avoid perhaps the biggest mistake made in Iraq, and keep the remains of the regime’s armed forces together. But how would that work, given the historic tension and animosity between the Eastern and Western Libyan tribes?

In Libya, tribal loyalty rules supreme. It can be just as strong – and deadly – as sectarian ties in Iraq. In 1969, Gadhafi overthrew the Eastern tribal King Idris. For more than 40 years, Gadhafi survived by isolating, impoverishing, and sometimes crushing those tribes, near Benghazi. Now, seething with rage and greed, those same tribes want their due. Meanwhile, Western tribes, even those who side with the rebels, want anything but.

It may be as dangerous for a Benghazi policeman or soldier to work the streets of Tripoli as it would have been for a Sunni cop to survive in Sadr City. And if Libyan security forces can’t manage to unite, who then would fill the vacuum? U.N. peacekeepers? The African Union? Or, more likely, French, British and U.S. “special advisors” and troops?

Remember the Bush administration’s vision for post-Saddam Iraq back in 2003? That, after the Iraqi people rose up as one and Saddam Hussein fell, the nation’s rebuilding would be financed by oil money?

What happened? Instead, insurgents sabotaged pipelines, assassinated engineers and managers, and suppressed Iraq’s oil industry for years. That same scenario could play out in Libya if today’s flimsy rebel coalition disintegrates into fighting between Libyan tribes, or between secular Libyans and Islamists.

Thursday’s “London Times” summed up the worry, saying, “complacency would be foolish. Looting, revenge attacks against Gadhafi loyalists or internecine fighting could all make life rocky as any new regime seeks to gain a foothold in the country.” 

Seen this movie before
What is promised for Libya looks like a familiar movie.

Iraq, like Libya, tried to move from decades of dictatorship to democracy almost overnight. It wrote a new constitution, held nation-wide elections – but that didn’t prevent an insurgency from killing thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians; it didn’t stop Sunni-Shiite bloodshed; nor did it prevent the rise of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, one of the terrorist group’s most brutal affiliates.

Rifkind, the former British Foreign Minister, said that “there is no evidence that [Libya’s Islamists] have any significant following.” But that was also the case in Iraq in 2003. Islamist radicals emerged there from the chaos and power vacuum left behind.

It’s too early to say if Libya can avoid either, and not repeat history.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, who has covered both Libya and Iraq.