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FACTDROP: One year later, Libya's future still very much in the air


One year later, Libya's future still very much in the air

Libyans attend celebrations for the one-year anniversary of the "February 17 Revolution" at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli February 17, 2012. Almost a year after Canada went to war to bring what it called freedom and democracy to Libya, the African nation is in a state of turmoil.

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By David Pugliese (Postmedia News)
Feb 18 2012

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird beamed with pride last summer as he signed a Canadian bomb that would soon be dropped on Libya.

"Free Libya. Democracy," he wrote.

Baird was on a trip to visit Canadian aircrews in Italy as well as the leaders of Libya's rebel forces, his first major international visit in the Foreign Affairs portfolio. He returned to Ottawa full of praise for both.

Canada, he pointed out, was at the forefront of the NATO mission in Libya. As for the rebel leaders, the minister said, they were just ordinary people — doctors, engineers and parents — trying to overthrow Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

In Gadhafi's place would come democracy, the rebels had assured Baird.

"I can honestly say their courage and their resolve are remarkable," he wrote in the Ottawa Citizen in July.

Defence and political analysts, media commentators and newspaper editorialists have portrayed Canada's military intervention in Libya as a great victory. Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, who led the NATO mission, has been hailed as a hero.

But almost a year after Canada went to war to bring what it called freedom and democracy to Libya, the African nation is in a state of turmoil.

The National Transitional Council that Baird praised as the true representative of the Libyan people is ignored in many areas of the country. Gun battles have broken out as rebel fighters carve out territory for their own tribes or organizations.

The rebels, who would not have come to power if it weren't for NATO's bombing, and who once complained about the brutality of Gadhafi's regime, are now themselves brutalizing others.

Prisoners — more than 8,000 men, women and children were thrown behind bars by the victorious forces — are being tortured and killed.

Last month Medecins Sans Frontieres pulled its staff out of prisons in Misrata after they were told to provide medical aid to prisoners so they could be tortured again. This week, Amnesty International reported it had documented the torture-killings of at least 12 detainees held by rebel militias.

Human rights agencies have gathered evidence about the ethnic cleansing by anti-Gadhafi forces of towns populated by black Libyans and African workers.

Months after the fighting stopped, new questions are being raised about Libya's future. It is becoming evident that the coming years will test Baird's earlier boast about the rebels: "The one thing we can say categorically is that they couldn't be any worse than Col. Gadhafi."


From the day Gadhafi seized power in a 1969 coup, he was a thorn in the side of western nations.

He forced petroleum companies to pay higher royalties on Libyan oil, bringing billions more into the country's coffers. And while Gadhafi and his supporters ensured they had more than their share of that wealth, living a lavish lifestyle, the colonel also used the oil revenue to significantly improve Libyans' lives.

When he seized power, life expectancy was 51 years. Under his regime it increased to 74. Literacy grew to 95 per cent for men, 78 per cent for women, and the per capita income increased to $16,300.

But like many Arab and African leaders, Gadhafi ruled the country of six million with an iron fist. His secret police arrested and tortured dissidents. In the 1970s and '80s his regime conducted show trials and televised executions. His forces brutally put down an uprising at a Tripoli prison in 1996, killing 1,200 political prisoners.

Gadhafi promoted anti-U.S. views, funding a variety of terrorist organizations, from the IRA to guerillas in Colombia. His agents were behind the bombing of a German disco that killed and injured U.S. military personnel and his regime was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan labelled him a "mad dog."

But some in Africa had a different view of Gadhafi. He was seen as a leader who stood up to the western colonial powers, demanding they compensate the continent's nations for the resources they had extracted over the decades.

Gadhafi provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for countries in the region and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. He promoted the idea of a United States of Africa, a proposal that would eventually lead to the creation of the African Union.

Gadhafi had a reputation for eccentric behaviour, but he was a keen tactician who had honed his survival skills over the decades. In the 1990s, he began a campaign to re-establish relations with the U.S. and the West, eventually offering up compensation to families of victims of the Lockerbie bombing and agreeing to dismantle his chemical and nuclear weapons programs.

Western nations welcomed Gadhafi back with few questions asked. They offered to sell him weapons and courted his officials. It didn't hurt that Gadhafi's Libyan Investment Authority had an estimated $70 billion to spend.

Prince Andrew dined with Gadhafi in November 2008, promoting Britain's oil interests. The British military sent members of its elite Special Air Service to provide training for the dictator's commandos, part of the growing relationship between the two nations.

In April 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warmly greeted one of the colonel's sons during high-level talks in Washington. "We deeply value the relationship between the United States and Libya," she said.

Less than three months later, Gadhafi himself was shaking hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during a G8 summit in Italy.

Canada also moved to get in on the action. But it already had a head start since Canadian companies had a long history of involvement in Libya, even when Gadhafi was considered an international pariah. Although former diplomats would try to downplay the extent of the relationship once the war against Libya began, an estimated 70 Canadian firms were active in the country, mainly in gas and oil production.

In the late 1980s, Canadian firms, with the backing of the Conservative government, pursued Libyan contracts. In 1989, Calgary-based Husky Oil and its partners spent nearly $100 million, entering into exploration and production-sharing agreements.

In December 2004, then Liberal prime minister Paul Martin headed a delegation to visit Gadhafi and improve trade.

By early 2011, Suncor Energy of Calgary had almost $1 billion in assets tied up in Libya and the Quebec engineering firm SNC Lavalin had won contracts valued at more than $800 million. SNC, with 2,000 employees in the country, was building a massive pipeline that Gadhafi envisioned would bring water in the south across the desert to cities in the north. It had also been awarded a contract to build a new airport in Benghazi and a $275-million prison in Tripoli.

Stephen Harper's Conservative government also forged links with the Libyan strongman. In 2008 the government asked for — and received — the Libyan leader's help in freeing kidnapped Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who had been kidnapped by al-Qaida's affiliate in northwest Africa. During a trip to Libya the next year, then-Foreign Affairs minister Lawrence Cannon thanked the Gadhafi regime for using its extensive intelligence network and connections on the abduction case.

Cannon had originally intended to give Gadhafi a dressing down over his decision to give a hero's welcome to the Libyan convicted in Lockerbie bombing, but that tough stance quickly evaporated after Libya threatened to shut down oil production by Canadian firms. Instead, Cannon flew to Tripoli to make amends and to remind Gadhafi that Canada was one of his supporters. The Conservatives had stood behind his bid to join the World Trade Organization as well as to get a seat on the International Atomic Energy Agency. In turn, Gadhafi had supported Canada's bid for a UN Security Council seat.

Equally important for the West was the fact Gadhafi had become a valuable ally in the war on terror.

Canadian Defence Department reports from 2002, 2003 and 2006 obtained by the Ottawa Citizen outline the extent Gadhafi supported U.S. efforts against al-Qaida, noting he was the most vocal Arab leader in denouncing terrorism and supporting American retaliation against Islamic extremists.

In addition, Libya supplied intelligence to the U.S. on Islamic extremists as well as al-Qaida affiliates operating in the Philippines, according to the reports.

As a thank you for Gadhafi's support, the CIA had arranged the 2004 capture in Asia of Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a Libyan terrorist alleged to have ties to al-Qaida. Belhadj, who would later rise to play a key role in the 2011 rebellion against Gadhafi, was put on one of the CIA's "rendition flights" and turned over to Libya's security agency.

Gadhafi had his own reasons for co-operating with western intelligence agencies, according to DND's reports. He faced a growing threat from the al-Qaida-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, or LIFG. Its members had fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s but then turned their attention to their native country. They launched attacks on Libyan security forces and tried twice to assassinate Gadhafi.

Islamists saw the Libyan leader as an infidel for not strictly adhering to the values of Islam. In turn, his regime perceived "radical Islam as its mortal enemy," one of the DND reports pointed out.

The Libyan leader responded to the LIFG threat with a brutal crackdown; his troops conducting attacks throughout the northeast of the country, known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

Gadhafi had also had other uprisings to deal with in the northeast; in 1980 he crushed a Libyan army mutiny in Tobruk and in 1993 he faced a similar uprising after soldiers based in Misrata rebelled because their particular tribe was not well represented within the leadership ranks.

Because of that, it came as no surprise to some intelligence analysts that last year's uprising against Gadhafi was centered in the region. Unemployment there was high, and corruption among Libyan officials was rampant.

The so-called Arab Spring, where demonstrators in nations from Yemen to Egypt took to the streets to demand better living conditions and government, was about to come to Libya.

On Feb. 15, 2011, citizens in Benghazi organized what they called a Day of Anger march. The demonstration soon turned into a full-scale battle with police.

At first, security forces used tear gas and water cannons. But as several hundred protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails attacked government buildings, the violence spiralled out of control. Demonstrators chanted, "No God but Allah, Moammar is the enemy of Allah."

Protests spread to several other towns and cities and security forces responded with gunfire, killing demonstrators.

Five days later, Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam, called for negotiations between the two sides, with Libyan authorities making a belated offer to improve living conditions. Saif warned that the country was on the verge of a civil war and without discussions between the two sides, "rivers of blood" would flow.

He acknowledged Libyan forces had brutally responded to the protests, opening fire on crowds. But he also pointed out the demonstrators had armed themselves with stolen military equipment and had killed policemen.

Around the world, politicians warned Gadhafi not to respond with violence. But the colonel urged supporters to seek out and destroy those who opposed his regime, calling the rebels "rats" and "scum."

Human rights activists warned that Libyan security forces were about to commit genocide and unconfirmed reports would later claim that Gadhafi's air force was being used to strafe and bomb protesters.

In Canada, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire joined forces to call on the government to build a coalition for "rapid engagement" against Libya.

In a Feb. 25 opinion piece in the Citizen, the senators raised the spectre of genocides of previous decades and wrote that Canada had a "responsibility to protect" and stop crimes against humanity. "It's about being on the right side of history by saving human lives," they wrote.

But the situation in Libya was no Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands of unarmed people had been slaughtered. The Libyans fighting against Gadhafi's regime had raided military barracks, and while outgunned, they were armed.

Gen. Abdul Younis, once Gadhafi's close confidant, defected in late February and opened up army installations to the rebels. Younis' defection brought with him a unit of Libyan special forces troops. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the country's justice minister, defected shortly after. Two weeks later, some 6,000 soldiers switched sides to support the rebels. They were equipped with tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

Only months after NATO went to war against Libya would a clearer picture start to emerge of the uprising, and questions were raised about the veracity of claims made by rebel supporters and western politicians that the Gadhafi regime had engaged in genocide.

"Much western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime's security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge," noted a June 2011 report produced by the International Crisis Group.

The report from the group, headed by Canadian Louise Arbour, the former UN high commissioner for human rights, noted that while Gadhafi's forces reacted brutally, "there are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term 'genocide.'"

By early March a number of cities were controlled by rebel forces, which had also scored some successes by shooting down government aircraft.

Still, some troops defecting to the rebel side were not sure how far they wanted to take the rebellion. Maj. Ahmed Qetrani, a defector who commanded 2,000 soldiers who had switched their allegiance, told journalists he questioned the value of an all-out war against Gadhafi's forces.

"It would create two Libyan armies, it would make (civil war), it would ruin our infrastructure and set our country back 100 years," he said.

At the Pentagon there was little appetite to become involved in yet another war in a Muslim country. Robert Gates, then the U.S. secretary of defence, opposed the establishment of a no-fly zone, saying to do so would require an attack on Libya. He argued the U.S. had interests in the region, but no vital interest in Libya.

Gates, however, was overruled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who pushed Obama to intervene, arguing it was in the U.S.'s interests to do so.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was also seen as a major force behind convincing western leaders to agree to an attack on the Gadhafi regime. Left-wing celebrity activist Bernard-Henri Levy had helped persuade Sarkozy to back the rebels early on; France was the first nation to formally recognize the opposition forces as the country's government, even though they were only in control of a handful of towns and cities.

It was an abrupt change in attitude for the French leader, who just four years earlier had greeted Gadhafi with open arms, hosting him in Paris. Just months before Sarkozy's decision to embrace the rebels, the French had invited one of Gadhafi's sons to come to France to examine Rafale fighter aircraft they hoped the Libyans would purchase.

But political commentators in France saw Sarkozy's strong support for the rebels squarely anchored in domestic politics. The president was facing an election in 2012 and had already been criticized for his government's close ties to autocratic governments. This was his moment to portray himself as a strong president who fought for human rights.

In the halls of power in Canada, there too was genuine concern about what Gadhafi might do to the civilians in Benghazi and rebel-held towns.

But Harper, like Sarkozy, would also benefit politically from decisive action on Libya.

Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political science professor, said intervention in Libya gave Harper the opportunity to stand prominently on the world stage as the "leader of the people," an image that would serve him well as he headed into a federal election in May.

A poll taken for the Defence Department during the war would later show that Canadians strongly approved of the government's decision to intervene in Libya.

Some in the Canadian Forces, however, don't subscribe to the argument that concern for civilians or shoring up political fortunes at home had much of a role to play. They say it all came down to relations with the U.S. Once Canada's closest ally had decided to intervene, the Canadian government agreed to go to war.

At National Defence headquarters, military planners were already hard at work, looking over various scenarios on how to respond to the government's request to take part in a Libyan mission.

HMCS Charlottetown had left Halifax on March 2 to support efforts to get Canadians out of Libya. With that already accomplished, the warship would be reassigned to take part in a maritime blockade.

On March 16, Canadian air force personnel were given a 48-hour notice that they too would be involved, according to documents obtained by the Citizen. A day later that was upgraded to 24 hours. On March 18th CF-18 fighter jets and other aircraft headed off to war.

On March 19, the largest international military attack on an Arab country since the 2003 invasion of Iraq began with waves of U.S., British and French aircraft launching strikes across Libya. Less than 48 hours earlier, the United Nations had passed resolutions to establish a no-fly zone and to protect civilians in Libya.

The opening salvo included attacks by stealth bombers and more than 120 cruise missiles fired from submarines and ships. Overnight, Gadhafi's air force was all but wiped out.

The documents obtained the Citizen note that Canada's air force soon found itself under pressure from the government "to fly (its) first mission" and join in on the war.

On March 21, even before Parliament approved combat in Libya, Canadian CF-18s had flown their first mission. Two days later, they would drop their first bombs.

"We are compelled to intervene," said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

In Washington there was much discussion among lawmakers about whether the war against Libya was actually legal. But in Canada there was little debate. Parliament was firmly behind Harper, who highlighted the protection of civilians as justification to commit the Canadian Forces to its second war in a decade.

As with the deployment of combat troops to Kandahar in 2005, no one in the military or government had much of an idea about how long the conflict could last. There were few details on its cost, or even what yardstick would be used to declare the mission accomplished.

But Harper confidently predicted Gadhafi would be finished off quickly. The French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, echoed that optimism; at most the war would last several weeks, he said.

But western leaders had misjudged, and the popular rebellion they envisioned would occur against Gadhafi didn't materialize. Elders of key tribes in the country still remained loyal to the colonel. Gadhafi had a warning for the U.S. and NATO "crusaders" as he called them. Prepare, he said, for a long war.

For the Canadian Forces and government, the war was also chance to show the country's leadership on the world stage. In late March, NATO announced that Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard would oversee the alliance's combat operations. From the beginning, the Conservatives portrayed Bouchard's appointment as a sign of the high esteem Canada was held in by alliance nations.

But defence sources suggest the appointment was one of convenience for the Americans. The U.S. had invaded Iraq in 2003 and had been fighting in Afghanistan since 2001. Pentagon officials didn't want an American to be seen at the helm of yet another attack on a Muslim country. At the same time, the Americans were keen to offset French influence over the mission.

Bouchard, an able Canadian officer with connections to the U.S. through his work at NORAD, was the perfect candidate. "I was also a known entity to many of the leaders around," Bouchard would later acknowledge.

The Canadian general would have his work cut out for him though. Besides trying to dislodge Gadhafi's well-entrenched forces, NATO war planners were dealing with another problem: They had no idea who the rebels were.

Former CIA operatives acknowledged the agency had little ability to collect intelligence within Libya. Canada was worse off since it was getting most of its information from the U.S. and Britain.

Shortly after the bombing started, some in the Pentagon started to worry about the involvement of Islamic extremists and members of al-Qaida within the rebellion.

In late March, Admiral James Stavridis, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, told U.S. lawmakers the military coalition was still trying to determine who were the players in the rebel organization.

"We have seen flickers in intelligence of potential al-Qaida, Hezbollah," he acknowledged.

President Idriss Deby Itno of neighbouring Chad, who called the international military intervention a "hasty decision," went one step farther and warned that al-Qaida's North African branch, known as AQIM, was playing an active role in the uprising.

Similar claims had already been made by Gadhafi, who said the rebellion had been organized by AQIM and his old enemies the LIFG, who had vowed to overthrow the colonel and return the country to traditional Muslim values, including Shariah law.

An estimated 500 LIFG members had fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s, some allied with Osama bin Laden, while extremists, centred in Benghazi and Darna, would later supply a steady flow of suicide bombers to fight U.S. forces in Iraq.

Gadhafi's brutal crackdown on LIFG throughout the 1990s had been welcomed by the Americans and by 2009, Libya had forced LIFG to agree to a truce. The group publicly renounced violence and any links to al-Qaida. In return, the Libyan government released more than 100 LIFG fighters from prison.

Now they were on the front lines, leading the rebellion against Gadhafi's regime.

In Darna, the rebel militia was led and trained by jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan, including one who spent six years as a detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

One of the men, Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an Islamic preacher, oversaw the recruitment of about 300 rebel fighters. He told journalists he thought bin Laden was a "good Muslim."

And his view of the U.S. had changed somewhat since American warplanes started bombing Gadhafi's troops.

"If we hated the Americans 100 per cent, today it is less than 50 per cent," he explained.

In mid-April, Gadhafi's forces ambushed and killed another seasoned jihadist turned rebel, Abdel-Moneim Mokhtar. Mokhtar had learned many of his skills fighting in Kandahar province under Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan warlord who had fought Russian, and later, Canadian and U.S. troops.

Other LIFG operatives also came to the forefront of the rebellion. Abdel Hakim Belhadj, who would later become one of the most powerful men in the new Libya as military commander of Tripoli, was a key one. Branded as a terrorist by the Americans, he had been arrested by the CIA in Malaysia in 2004, interrogated and then turned over to Gadhafi who immediately imprisoned him.

Now being supported by NATO, Belhadj denied the LIFG was ever linked to al-Qaida and said the group's area of operations was always Libya. Asked to explain, then, how he came to fight in Afghanistan with al-Qaida, he suggested serendipity played a major role.

"It happened that we found ourselves in the same place at the same time as al-Qaida: in Afghanistan, where we sometimes fought next to them it was to liberate the country, but we were never at their service," he told the French publication Le Monde.

Although some Canadian military officers in private jokingly referred to the NATO jets bombing Gadhafi's troops as "al-Qaida's air force" there was no concerted effort in Canada to raise concerns about Islamic extremists within the rebel ranks.

In fact, Bouchard dismissed outright the idea that jihadists were involved. Those on the front lines, he told journalists, were lawyers, doctors and taxi drivers, all fighting for their freedom.

It would be six months after the war started that Canada's ambassador to Libya, Sandra McCardell, acknowledged to parliamentarians the presence of jihadists in rebel ranks.

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