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Obama administration works to be sure Libya doesn’t turn into Iraq

The Obama administration scrambled Monday to ensure that the U.S.-backed rebels who appear on the brink of victory in Libya don’t follow the grim path Iraq took eight years ago when jubilant celebrations in Baghdad gave way to wholesale chaos and bloody civil war.

With rebels still battling troops loyal to Moammar Kadafi in the heart of Tripoli, the capital, U.S. officials and allied governments pushed rebel leaders to prevent the type of widespread looting and revenge killings that swept Baghdad shortly after the U.S.-led invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

U.S. officials also urged the rebels to safeguard arms depots believed to contain aging stocks of chemical weapons agents, as well as shoulder-fired missiles, to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. Surveillance aircraft have monitored the sites, and U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe the weapons are secure or too old to be operational.

Photos: Libyan rebellion

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Amid conflicting reports on the strength of the rebel advances, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conferred by phone with officials from the Transitional National Council, the rebels’ ruling body, as well as with some NATO and Arab allies involved in the air war that began in March.

Politically at least, Obama’s supporters and even a few high-profile critics say the White House appears to have been vindicated by limiting America’s direct role in the war, a policy that some critics have derided as “leading from behind.”

“I was among those who were critical of the position of ‘leading from behind,’ ” said L. Paul Bremer III, who ran the problem-plagued occupation of Iraq for President George W. Bush after the invasion there. But the outcome, he added, “should give the administration some degree of satisfaction. After all, it worked. Kadafi seems to be finished. There will be some regime change there.”

Obama stopped short of declaring victory, noting that the situation in Tripoli remained fluid and Kadafi’s armed forces still posed a threat.

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Speaking to reporters from Martha’s Vineyard, where he is on vacation with his family, Obama credited the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with helping to push Kadafi’s regime to the edge of collapse, and he framed American involvement as a humanitarian intervention that saved lives.

He said U.S. officials would deliver humanitarian aid and work with the rebels to foster an “inclusive transition” once Kadafi was gone.

“We proved that you could have an international coalition that could help shoulder the burdens here, so it wasn’t just on the United States,” said Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security advisor. “We’ve done this in a way so that the Libyans themselves were the ones to bring about regime change, instead of the United States imposing it and owning it.”

But the next steps are far from clear. The White House reaffirmed that it would not send troops to Libya, even in a peacekeeping role, and NATO officials gave no sign that they were prepared to field a peacekeeping force to help the rebels secure a nonviolent transition to a new national government, as many experts argue will be needed once Kadafi is ousted.

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“Let’s wait and see what’s on [the rebels’] wish list,” said Victoria Nuland, the chief State Department spokeswoman.

Although U.S. officials insist that they are committed to helping install a democratic government, Washington and its cash-strapped Western allies have limited resources and little appetite to become too deeply involved in Libya. Nor is it clear that the rebels would want outside help.

“The easy part is the rebellion,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior intelligence official and advisor to the Obama White House. “The hard part is governing the country.”

NATO warplanes have carried out more than 4,700 combat sorties in Libya since mid-March, straining the alliance but apparently paving the way for a rebel victory. NATO officials said Monday that they were hopeful that Turkey or countries in Africa might agree to send troops to Libya if a peacekeeping force is needed once the fighting ends.

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In a statement Monday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared to play down the possibility of a major role for NATO in a post-Kadafi Libya. “It is for the international community to assist them,” he said.

Obama administration and NATO officials said they were keenly aware of the disastrous post-invasion Iraq experience and were determined not to repeat the mistakes made there.

Failure to secure hundreds of Iraqi ammunition dumps and arsenals proved lethal as insurgents and Al Qaeda supporters were able to seize enough weapons and high explosives to battle U.S. and Iraqi forces for years.

The decision to disband the Iraqi army and to fire tens of thousands of Sunni bureaucrats who had run the Iraqi government also proved catastrophic because it pushed an angry population onto the streets and created a vast recruiting pool for the insurgency.

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Mindful of the mobs that pillaged museums, hotels, government offices and more in Baghdad, Obama urged the rebel forces that poured into Tripoli to preserve as many of Libya’s institutions as possible.

U.S. and allied officials, conferring with rebel leaders at their capital in Benghazi, decided weeks ago that they would seek to preserve as much of Kadafi’s government as they could, removing only the officials who have taken part in Kadafi’s crimes — though guilt may be hard to determine.

Allied officials also want the new government to include a strong representation from the desert tribes that have supported Kadafi for most of his four decades in power in hopes of defusing strife and potential fights for control of the country’s lucrative oil industry.

Whether anyone can control the rival tribes or stop revenge attacks on former officials in the regime — especially those in the military and internal security agencies that helped him stay in power — is far from clear.

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“If anyone tells you they have an answer to that, they’re guessing,” said a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Reprisals against Kadafi’s security forces and senior officials in his inner circle are probably inevitable, a senior NATO officer warned, noting that “the security forces probably don’t have much of a future.”

Despite its oil wealth, Libya faces severe economic problems and is likely to need humanitarian aid for years. But NATO officials said they hoped police and other public sector workers could be convinced to stay on the job, permitting the country to begin recovering relatively quickly from the six-month conflict.

Other help also appeared likely. After months of pleading for money to help provide social services, the rebels saw the spigots begin to open.

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British and German authorities said they would release a total of $30 billion in Libyan assets seized when the war began. U.S. officials said that, because of legal snarls, they could not yet hand over $34 billion frozen by the Obama administration.

Photos: Libyan rebellion

paul.richter@latimes.com

david.cloud@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Ken Dilanian in Washington and Maeve Reston in Vineyard Haven, Mass., contributed to this report.


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