Libya's new rulers confront perilous transition

TRIPOLI Fri Aug 26, 2011 11:23am EDT

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Abdul Qader packed a suitcase on Friday to move out of his Abu Salim district in Tripoli, even though he believed Libyan rebels had finally cleared it of Muammar Gaddafi's gunmen.

"The revolutionaries control the area, but there are no services, water or electricity," he said, fleeing an area where bodies still lay in the streets from recent battles.

Libya's new rulers face vast challenges if they are to convince Abdul Qader, and the wider public, that they can protect and provide for their traumatized people -- and prevent any descent into the bloody chaos of postwar Iraq.

Foremost is security -- and in the streets of Tripoli this is limited for now to myriad rebel checkpoints and occasional vigilante groups of residents defending their neighborhoods.

In Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya complex near Abu Salim, rebels were looting what still remained three days after it was overrun. A body lay at the entrance, buzzing with flies, while rebels drove around in trucks, yelling "Libya free."

But images of lawlessness do not tell the whole story.

Elsewhere in Tripoli, rebels supervised the collection of government office equipment to save it from looters.

And the NTC has tried hard to convince Libyans it is doing all it can to restore stability and protect lives and property, and to build an inclusive, law-based country whose oil wealth will be distributed equitably among all the people.

Oil and gas accounts for about 70 percent of the economy and much hangs on how fast the NTC can revive the battered sector.

Ali Tarhouni, in charge of oil and finance for the council, declared from Tripoli on Thursday that work in his office had begun, saying he hoped oil exports could resume in two or three months, with full production perhaps a year away.

Meeting such targets will depend not just on technical factors but on whether the new Libya can assure security and project the political stability that will give international energy companies and other investors the confidence to return.

Not all are in a hurry to do so. Impregilo SpA, Italy's biggest construction company, said on Friday it did not expect Libyan oil production to restart this year.

POCKETS OF RESISTANCE

With Gaddafi loyalists defending redoubts in the capital, in their leader's coastal home city of Sirte and deep in the desert, the NTC's grip on the country is far from complete.

Gaddafi can still deliver taunting audio messages broadcast on loyalist television channels and may try to rally an insurgency, as did Iraq's Saddam Hussein, if he evades capture.

For the NTC, managing the pent-up aspirations of six million Libyans after 42 years of repression is a huge task.

Mahmoud Jibril, who heads an interim government, said in Istanbul after talks with the international Libya Contact Group that the NTC must get money quickly to meet popular needs.

"When the regime collapses all eyes will turn to the NTC to provide the Libyan people with services they have been deprived of for the last six months, including power and salaries."

Jibril also said Libya needed to establish an army and a strong police force. Under Gaddafi, intelligence agencies and military brigades led by his sons maintained a fearsome grip.

The NTC has asked Western powers to release billions of dollars of Libyan assets, frozen after the conflict began.

For months a handful of Western advisers has worked with the NTC, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, on plans for a power transition that would avoid the disasters of Iraq.

Intentions are one thing, implementation another.

"The risk is that everyone thinks it's someone else's responsibility," a British government aide said this week of international efforts to help stabilize a post-Gaddafi Libya.

NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who plans to move from Benghazi to Tripoli next week, says a transitional government will include many members from the capital -- a move intended to assuage Libya's historic east-west regional tensions.

Rebels from western Libya spearheaded the assault on Tripoli, even though the revolt began in the east on February 17.

In theory, they acknowledge the authority of the NTC, but battle-hardened fighters from the coastal city of Misrata and the mostly Berber Western Mountains tend to scoff at the military performance of their peers in the east.

NTC officials say all fighters must eventually join the army or return to civilian life, but add that this is not the time for a showdown with militias that have fought Gaddafi.

They say a priority for rebel forces in Tripoli is to secure government buildings and installations. They also say they have set up a special force to guard oil facilities.

Collecting the vast array of weapons circulating in Libya will be another tricky task for any new government.

IN COLD BLOOD?

The scale of the security challenge was underlined when evidence emerged on Thursday of killings by both sides.

A Reuters correspondent counted 30 bullet-riddled bodies, apparently of pro-Gaddafi fighters, in central Tripoli. At least two had their hands bound. One was on a hospital trolley.

Elsewhere, a British medical worker said she had counted 17 bodies thought to be of prisoners shot by Gaddafi's forces.

Jalil has vowed to resign if rebel fighters indulge in revenge killings. The NTC says its forces have been ordered to treat all prisoners well and to avoid civilian casualties.

"We are all Libyans. This revolution is for all Libyans. The wealth is for all Libyans and it will be redistributed for all Libyans equally," he told a news conference on Thursday.

But Libya's new rulers must hurry to demonstrate control, analysts say. Otherwise, a frightened population may fall back on ethnic and tribal allegiances, complicating reconstruction efforts and moves to lure back foreign investors.

"If groups linked to Gaddafi perceive they are being attacked or marginalized, it's more likely we'll see a further communal tone to the violence emerging," said Henry Smith, Libya analyst at London-based consultancy Control Risks.

The NTC is clearly keen to avoid that and its draft constitution is inclusive, but the risk remains, he said, citing Libya's non-Arab Berbers, neglected under Gaddafi.

"Since the uprising, you've had Berber schools reopening and something of an emancipation. They will rightly demand a greater say in the future of Libya," Smith said.

Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst at Maplecroft, said internal rifts may soon surface now that Gaddafi's removal, the unifying factor for many of his opponents, seems assured.

"Tribal, ethnic, ideological and religious rivalries and divisions constitute the largest risk for Libya as members of the opposition movement seek to fill the void," he said.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Peter Graff in Tripoli, Robert Birsel in Benghazi and Peter Apps in London; Writing by Alistair Lyon

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