Qaddafi Pledges Iraq-Like Civil War—Can He Do It?

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The fleeing despot promises a long and bloody fight, but there are important differences from the tinderbox of 2003 Iraq

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Still from TV network Al-Rai's broadcast of Qaddafi's Thursday call in / Reuters


Now-deposed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, in a phone call to independent Arabic-language TV network Al-Rai on Thursday, urged supporters to continue fighting "valley to valley and mountain to mountain" in a plan that had echos of Iraq's post-Saddam insurgency. "We will fight the collaborators. The Libyan people are not a herd of sheep, they are heavily armed," he said. "The battle will be long and let Libya burn." He later added in a second call, "If Libya goes up in flames, who will be able to govern it? Let it burn. They cannot rule as long as we're armed." But could Qaddafi, who urged loyalists and "tribes" to continue fighting even without him, really reproduce Iraq's violence?

Saddam Hussein's loyalist insurgency had several important ingredients that Qaddafi will probably not be able to reproduce among the Libyan people. First, in numbers. The Iraqi army under Saddam wasn't much against the U.S.-led invasion, but it was still massive -- hundreds of thousands of men -- and enjoyed the full material support of the regime. Qaddafi, however, has long sidelined his military out of fear of a coup, leaving it relatively small and decentralized, little trained, and not so interested in following Qaddafi's blaze-of-glory exit.

Second, in loyalty. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (the Baghdad-based political headquarters of the U.S. and UK occupation) committed its original sin of disbanding the Baathist army in 2003, it converted much of that force into angry, armed, unemployed young men furious at the occupiers and receptive to Saddam's call for an insurgency. The Iraqi army's close relationship with Saddam made senior military leaders likewise willing -- especially given the U.S. playing cards marking them as wanted men -- to go down fighting. Much of the Libyan army, however, defected when it became increasingly clear the rebels would win. Their motives were less than pure, but the defected officers and units now have a stake in Libya's stability and security under the new regime, something the Iraqi army never had.

Third, in ability to fight as insurgents. Saddam made the army synonymous with his rule, and maintained several elite, well-trained divisions that were as ferocious as they were loyal: the Republican Guards, for example, and the Fedayeen Saddam. When their leader fell, these military blocks could become ready-made, stand-alone insurgencies; ready, willing, and able to fight on for their leader even in the absence of a Baathist government. Qaddafi distrust of his military, however, has left it without much in the way of Republican Guard-style units. The closest parallel is the much-feared Khamis Brigade, led by son Khamis Qaddafi, estimated at as many as 10,000 strong. They don't pose the same threat as their Iraqi counterparts, but they should concern the rebel leadership. Still, there are answers to this problem: reconciliation offers could bring some fighters home peacefully, for example. In any case, such fighters would be likely to find less local support than did their Iraqi counterparts.

Fourth, in sectarian dynamics. Saddam's loyalists were motivated to fight on in part because they feared that, as members of the ruling Sunni minority, their defeat would lead to bloody reprisals and worse from the long-oppressed Shia majority. As it turned out, they were absolutely right: Shia militias took their revenge en masse, killing untold thousands of Sunnis and forcing many more to flee Baghdad or the country. But Qaddafi belongs to the same ethnic and religious majority -- Sunni Arab -- as does the rebel leadership. It's difficult to foresee Libya's regime change spurring the same kind of sectarian bloodbath that it did in Iraq. While it's true that parts of Libyan society still observe the old tribal legacies, no single tribe is large enough to wage a bloody insurgency of the kind Qaddafi is calling for. More importantly, it's hard to imagine why any of them would want to.

Still, Libya, like any nation torn by war and lacking in strong civil society, is vulnerable. The flood of small arms has toppled stronger nations, and its destabilizing effects can last for generations or longer -- if late-model Kalashnikovs can age beyond usability, it hasn't happened often. And though Libya lacks Iraq's tinderbox of Sunni-Shia tension, it does have severely at-risk minorities. Ethnic Tuaregs -- a small but highly visible minority of whom have done terrible things as pro-Qaddafi mercenaries -- are already being mistreated terribly by the rebels poised to take over Tripoli's government. There are increasingly common reports of the country's black-skinned minority, many of whom are migrant workers, being attacked in misguided reprisals, forced into refugee camps, and forced into shanty towns where rape is common. This ethnic violence is terrible enough in its own right, but it could also risk sparking sectarian fighting similar to that in Iraq, albeit on an almost certainly smaller scale. There are only about 100,000 Tuaregs in Libya, but if the attacks continue it is likely only a matter of time until some Tuareg communities consider fighting back. There's also no telling how detained loyalists fighters (and suspected loyalist fighters) are being treated -- not well, fragmentary reporting suggests -- and what sort of antagonisms and anti-rebel sentiment could fester as a result.

The Iraq War claimed an estimated 50,000 Iraqi civilians, displaced 4 million Iraqi refugees, and led to the imprisonment of thousands of Iraqi detainees. Libya's post-revolution conflict, if Qaddafi is able to spark one as he apparently plans, would probably not be nearly so awful. But, if the flailing Libyan leader wants to succeed in punishing his country for their uprising, it doesn't have to be.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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