Into the unknown

On October, Foreign Minister John Baird toured the former fortified compound of Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli, the first visit by a foreign minister to the compound since it was seized by Libya's rebel forces.

On October, Foreign Minister John Baird toured the former fortified compound of Moammar Gadhafi in Tripoli, the first visit by a foreign minister to the compound since it was seized by Libya's rebel forces.

Photograph by: Sean Kilpatrick, Reuters , Ottawa Citizen

When the Libyan people rose up against Moammar Gadhafi one year ago this week, his regime's retaliation was immediate, and brutal. The world reacted almost as swiftly. Western leaders lined up to condemn the colonel they had once wooed and backed the rebels with warm words of support and relentless airstrikes. In Part 1 of a three-part series, David Pugliese looks at why we went to war - and what was missed in the rush to act.

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 on the weapon.

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 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 at 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 pieces of land 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 Médecins Sans Frontières 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 torturekillings 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. 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 raw 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. 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-Qaeda's affiliate in northwest Africa in 2008. 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 Citizen outline the extent Gadhafi supported U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda, 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda. 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 cooperating with western intelligence agencies, according to DND's reports. He faced a growing threat from the al-Qaedalinked 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 Roméeo 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.



Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/Into+unknown/6173271/story.html#ixzz1mjCUxZKt


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