Libya May Not Be Iraq, But There Sure Are Similarities

Missing weapons, fears of retribution, and talk of a power vacuum

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From the very beginning of NATO's military intervention in Libya, analysts have been comparing the mission to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The comparisons swelled within hours of the rebels storming Tripoli and they've persisted. Today, for example, The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg points to a New York Times story on heat-seeking missiles that have gone missing in Libya and links to a Defense Department briefing from shortly after the Iraq invasion, observing, "Look, it's not as we haven't been warned that freedom is untidy." Let's take a look at the main points of comparison between the two conflicts.

  • Missing Weapons: In 2003, The Christian Science Monitor points out, U.S. troops failed to secure Iraq's weapons depots, which were smaller than Libya's, fueling an insurgency. Now that some of Qaddafi's surface-to-air missiles are missing, the Monitor adds, the specter of a loyalist insurgency (or regional rebel groups and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb obtaining the weapons) looms large.
  • Missing Leader: The Times notes that Qaddafi has disappeared just like Saddam did for eight months. "So long as Qadhafi and his sons are free, they have the resources with which they can make trouble," the National Endowment for Democracy's Laith Kubba tells The Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • Retribution: To avoid paralyzing the government, casting angry armed men onto the street, and alienating the population, the Times notes, rebel officials are trying to avoid America's mistake, in the wake of Saddam's fall, of breaking up the Iraqi military and police force and banning members of the ruling Baath Party from working in public-sector jobs. Libya's new leaders say they'll welcome back bureaucrats and other mid-level functionaries and prosecute only those senior Qaddafi officials who committed egregious crimes--a promise, the Times adds, that the provisional government appears to be keeping so far. Still, there has been some evidence of revenge killings by rebel forces.
  • Power Vacuum: The Inquirer's Trudy Rubin writes that "decades of despotic rule deprived Iraqis and Libyans of any experience with political compromise, or civic action." She urges Libya's new leaders to "get the lights on in Libyan cities and towns" to avoid the kind of "post-invasion chaos in Baghdad" that "soured popular optimism very fast and encouraged troublemakers." She also recommends establishing a strong presidency in light of "the inept Iraqi parliament" and refraining from privatizing the state-run economy so that unemployed young men don't flock to Islamist groups and militias as they did in Iraq. But will a political transition come soon enough? Libya's leaders foresee democratic elections within 18 months--the same period of time it took Iraq to hold elections after Saddam's overthrow.
  • Money: When the U.S. seized control of Iraq, Reuters explains, the state-controlled economy collapsed as government salaries went unpaid, contracts languished, and corruption and financial mismanagement spread. Western powers are therefore working hard to unfreeze Libyan assets and unravel Libyan sanctions so that the Libyan economy doesn't implode, the news agency adds.
  • Internal Divisions: In an editorial in the Times of London, former British foreign minister Malcolm Rifkind argues that the "seeds of civil war" were planted in Iraq before the U.S. invasion because of increasingly tense relations between the Shiite majority, who assumed power after Hussein's fall, and Saddam's Sunnis, who suddenly found themselves out of power (Libya's population, meanwhile, is almost entirely Sunni). The Guardian's Brian Whitaker states that Libya's social divisions "are less likely to become a proxy battleground for foreign powers." But Jim Maceda at NBC News notes that tensions between eastern and western Libyan tribes "can be just as strong--and deadly--as sectarian ties in Iraq," adding that fighting between secular Libyans and Islamists is also a concern. 
  • Foreign Interference: The Libyan intervention, unlike the war in Iraq, has not involved foreign ground troops, though NATO's bombing campaign undoubtedly played a role in Qaddafi's ouster. "Key difference between Libya & Iraq: stabilisation will be led by Libya, based on Libyan plans, with others like UK giving advice & help," British Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted earlier this month. A day earlier, an anonymous French official told Reuters that Iraq "was a successful military operation, but a failed political transition ... We have to stand alongside the National Transitional Council, but not impose anything on them." 
  • Geopolitics: Businessweek points out other key differences between Libya and Iraq: "Libya is also bigger than Iraq, much less populous, and located in a less threatening neighborhood than Iraq is."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.