Belfast Telegraph

Allies risk repeating the mistakes of Iraq once again

In the next few weeks Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is likely to lose power. The forces arrayed against him are too strong. His own political and military support is too weak. The US, Britain and France are scarcely going to permit a stalemate to develop whereby he clings on to Tripoli and parts of western Libya while the rebels hold the east.

The first days of foreign intervention mirror the experience of the US and its allies in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, by going extremely well. Air attacks shattered a column of tanks and infantry south of Benghazi. Survivors have fled. The rout may soon resemble the rapid dissolutions of the Taliban and the Iraqi army.

Pundits have been wagging their fingers in the last few days, saying Gaddafi may be mad but he is not stupid, but this is to underestimate the opéra bouffe quality of his regime.

It is the next stage in Libya - after the fall of Gaddafi - which has the potential to produce a disaster similar to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases successful war left the US as the predominant power in the country. In Iraq this rapidly turned into an old-fashioned imperial occupation. "The occupation was the mother of all mistakes," as one Iraqi leader is fond of repeating.

In Afghanistan the US always called the shots, even if Hamid Karzai headed the Government.

The same problem is going to arise in Libya. There will be a lack of a credible local partner. The rebels have shown that they are politically and militarily weak.

The local leaders who rise to the top in these circumstances are usually those who speak the best English and get on with the US and its allies.

There is a further complication. Libya is an oil state like Iraq, and oil wealth tends to bring out the worst in almost everybody. It leads to autocracy because whoever controls oil revenues can pay for powerful security forces and ignore the public. Few states wholly reliant on oil are democracies.

An Iraqi civil servant in Baghdad commented cynically before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that "the exiled Iraqis are an exact replica of those who currently govern us", but the present leadership was almost sated "since they have been robbing us for 30 years" while the new rulers "will be ravenous".

Already there are signs that David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and Nicolas Sarkozy are coming to believe too much of their own propaganda, particularly over Arab League support for air strikes. Diplomats normally contemptuous of the views of the Arab League suddenly treat its call for a no-fly zone as evidence that the Arab world favours intervention.

This could change very fast. Arab League leaders are mostly people whom the "Arab Awakening" is trying to displace. Military participation in action against the Libyan Government is expected from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, members of the Gulf Co-operation Council that clubs together Gulf monarchies. This is the same GCC that sent troops to Bahrain to help crush pro-democracy protests.

The worst verifiable atrocity in the Arab world in the past week was not in Libya but in Yemen, where pro-government gunmen machine-gunned an unarmed demonstration killing 52 people.

In terms of real authority, Gaddafi is likely to be replaced not by Libyans but by the foreign powers which assist in his overthrow. It will not take much for their actions to be seen across the Middle East as hypocritical and self-serving, and resisted as such.

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