Some fear post-revolution Libya may look like Iraq
The rapid rebel takeover has left Libya’s capital teetering, with young men firing antiaircraft weapons into the air and gunmen at checkpoints hustling anyone they regard as mildly suspicious into overcrowded detention centers.
Some people are beginning to worry about an unflattering comparison: Baghdad.
Food and gasoline are in short supply. Tripoli residents complain of outages of electricity, telephone service and water. Commercial life has ground to a dramatic halt, with nearly all shops and businesses shuttered. As residents broke the Ramadan fast Friday evening, much of the city was dark.
For now the euphoria of dislodging Moammar Kadafi from his base of power and all but crushing his government has papered over many of the grievances. Libyans are infused with the spirit of the homegrown Arab Spring uprisings around the Middle East and North Africa, a contrast to the foreign invasion Iraqis faced.
Despite the grimness of living conditions, Tripoli residents still embrace the interim Transitional National Council and break out in spontaneous celebrations on the streets.
“Freedom!” they chant.
But some also fret about the possibility that chaos will take hold, as it did in the Iraqi capital after U.S.-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“There is no electricity and no water,” said Ahmed Rami, a 23-year-old medical student in southwest Tripoli. “We are disappointed a little — not because of the revolution, but because of the lack of services. The Transitional National Council promised that services would continue.”
Desperate to voice a complaint, Rami went online and submitted questions to CNN and the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya about the state of affairs in Tripoli. “So far, there is no response,” he said.
Although young men protect their own neighborhoods, major institutions such as banks, ministries and historic sites remain relatively unprotected. A number of banks and commercial towers have been thoroughly looted. Law enforcement is left in the hands of rebel fighters, some of whom had never been to their country’s capital.
Young men continue to pillage military sites abandoned by Kadafi’s men, carting away huge stores of weapons, just as Iraqis hauled off guns and explosives later used to make car bombs and launch attacks on Iraqi and U.S.-led forces.
Members of the transitional council and some rebels said the new government would eventually collect all the arms. But the looters begged to differ. One said he had scooped up several brand-new guns, which he would either keep or sell for the right price.
Transitional National Council members trickling into the capital from their base in the east bristle at the comparison between Libya and Iraq. They insist that they are victims of their own success. Few expected that Kadafi’s defenses would melt away so speedily. As late as Monday, rebels were predicting that Kadafi had up to two more weeks of fight left in him.
“I admit that we did not expect such a pace in military operations,” said Ali Abdul Salaam Tarhouni, a former oil minister who now serves on the transitional council.
Another prominent council figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tied some of the country’s woes to Western governments that have frozen billions of dollars in Libyan assets, which could be used to purchase fuel and supplies for Tripoli.
He said the transitional government would appoint a committee of former security officials, but did not specify a plan or timetable for collecting guns or getting uniformed police onto the streets.
Rami, the medical student, and others spoke of rumors of a Kadafi plot to poison wells and down electricity lines in an effort to discredit and weaken the new government.
Just as U.S. forces concentrated on defeating Hussein supporters in Iraq, the most capable rebel fighters, militias from the country’s third-largest city of Misurata and the towns of the Nafusa Mountains, seem focused on crushing the last remnants of Kadafi’s loyalists and finding the leader himself rather than establishing order.
Reports also have begun to surface of reprisal killings of suspected loyalists, although few accounts could be fully verified given the chaos and lack of communications in Tripoli.
“We’re not going to hang people in the streets,” said the council member who requested anonymity. “If you committed a crime, you will go to the courts.”
More obvious right now is the visceral violence of rebel forces hammering away at residential neighborhoods known to be strongholds of Kadafi supporters.
Rebel fighters use artillery and antiaircraft guns in such districts, which include Abu Salim, Hadba and Salahadin. At one point this week, rebels were firing assault rifles into residential apartment blocks in Abu Salim, where they suspected a sniper was holed up.
Neighborhood councils provide some order. In some cases, that includes running their own detention centers. At least 200 people were reportedly being held in a three-story primary school in the Souk Joumeh district, which a pair of visiting reporters was barred from approaching.
Members of the district council insisted that the men had taken up arms against the revolution and were being held pending trial. But they also said some of those arrested included people pulled out of their cars at checkpoints because they looked “suspicious,” often code for dark-skinned Libyans and others of sub-Saharan African descent.
“They are just checking out some people,” said Mohammad Muftah Noha, a member of the Souk Joumeh council. “We have a file for everyone.”
Pressed to at least allow the prisoners to be seen to make sure they were not being mistreated, one member of the district council said journalists would be allowed to visit once the council had created an appropriate meeting room to talk with prisoners.
“You can’t go inside because it really smells bad,” explained one resident of the neighborhood who spoke on condition that his name not be used. “There are way too many people in there for a space of that size.”
Said one Tripoli taxi driver, “I have a fear that one day we’ll be like Iraqis, wishing for the days of Moammar Kadafi.”
Special correspondent Ryma Marrouch contributed to this report.
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