Overlooked, battle for Watiyah air base key to Libya’s future

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Russian heat-seeking rockets terrorize the fighters scattered along the front at the Watiyah air base in Western Libya. “Torpedoes are dangerous because they precisely target cars, often full of men,” one of the fighters told The Media Line while adjusting his walkie-talkie in preparation for his deployment along the front lines.

“Thirteen men were killed in one day last week, and three ambulances were destroyed. Also, an ambulance driver got killed by the same Russian guided rocket,” said Dr. Ashraf Al-Mansouri, who is responsible for the field hospital set up in a gas station about six miles away from the fighting. Here, the supply of anesthetics and analgesics often run out.

Over three years after the uprising that ousted former strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is once again drowning in civil war. The fighting has continued unabated since last May, bringing to mind the former dictator’s prophecy about a “Somalia-ization” of the Libyan conflict.

Last August, armed groups led by the powerful militias of Misrata, a city 120 miles east of Tripoli, launched “Operation Fajr Libya” to take the control over the entire capitol, driving out the fighters of the Zintan Brigades, government-funded armed units emanating from the city of Zintan that featured prominently in the revolution that ousted Gaddafi.  Although the two sets of militias were comrades-in-arms during the 2011 uprising, shortly afterward they began to compete to fill the power vacuum left by Gaddafi. Misrata allied with the Muslim Brotherhood while Zintan ended up fighting alongside Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s loyalists.

Haftar is a former Gaddafi-era officer who defected in the 1980s and returned to the country in 2011.  His allies today include security men from the old regime, prominent eastern tribes, federalists demanding greater autonomy for the east, and the Zintan militias. Last May, Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” against the fundamentalist Islamist groups in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

The split reached the national institutions, the House of Representatives (HOR) being supported by Zintan and the outgoing National Congress by Misrata. In August, Misrata drove Zintani armed groups from the capital Tripoli, forcing the internationally recognized HOR to take shelter in the eastern city of Tubruq.

While mainstream media focuses on the struggle between Gen. Haftar and fundamentalist groups in Benghazi, and on the clashes at oil terminals along the eastern coast of the country, the fight for the Watiyah air base remains in the shadow but in reality is one of the key battles that will determine the resolution of Libya’s civil war.  

The war between the Islamists, who nowadays count the Islamic State (ISIS) among its among its ranks, and Haftar’s forces is ideological and threatens to plunge the country into an abyss.

Last September, fierce fighting between militias resulted in conflicting charges of heinous acts, the deaths of thousands and gross violations of human rights.

In October, Haftar used Russian-made MIG 23s to strike ammunition depots in Zawiyah, Sabratah and Gharian, and then bombed Mitiqa airport in Tripoli. The Air Force general in charge of the Tripoli-based forces, Colonel Ali Abudeya, called Haftar a “terrorist because he strikes Mitiqa which is a civilian airport.”

By November, at least eight militias teamed-up to launch an assault on the Watiyah air base to put a halt to Haftar’s airborne strikes in a campaign seen as being the last stand of Haftar’s influence in the west. If the airport falls, Haftar and company will lose access to supplies, food, and weapons.

Zintan, some 50 miles south of Watiyah, would be completely isolated, and the airstrip that was built strategically after the 2011 revolution would not be able to guarantee refueling. As well, Haftar and the Tubruq based authorities would arguably lose the western region of Tripolitania, given that Libya has already begun to divide the country into the National Independence era’s three provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

The battle for Watiyah airport also poses an even more insidious threat to the entire country in the form of the radicalization of the local population paving the way for an ideological war that further divides the nation. 

A rebel commander in the city of Amazigh Jado told The Media Line that, “The terrorist groups are already inside the country, although they are still inactive. They are basically waiting until all of the revolutionary forces run out of ammunition to come out and conquer Libya.”  He concluded by saying that, “The international community seems to be blind. They waste their time talking with the national political representatives in Geneva, although the militias control Libya and they do not sit in Geneva.”

Last year, 2,825 people were killed in Libya's protracted conflict, and at least 120,000 people were forced from their homes. The United Nations-led national dialogue for the North African country’s stability is tenuous at best. The truce was systematically broken during the talks and no ceasefire has been scheduled despite the recent United Nations-brokered meeting with Libyan stakeholders in the city of Ghaddames last Wednesday.

Israel rushes airliner defenses as Libya leaks SAMs

Israel has accelerated the installation of anti-missile defenses on its airliners, a security official said on Friday, seeing an enhanced risk of attack by militants using looted Libyan arms.

Jets flown by El Al and two other Israeli carriers are being equipped with a locally made system known as C-Music that uses a laser to “blind” heat-seeking missiles, the official said, giving a 2013 target for fitting most of the fleet.

As a stop-gap, Israel is adapting air force counter-measures for use aboard civilian planes, said the official, who declined to elaborate on the technologies involved, or to be identified.

“We have long been aware of the threat and were ahead of the rest of the world in preparing for it. Libya has meant government orders to step things up even further,” the official said, citing intelligence assessments that chaos during the North African nation’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi allowed trafficking of Libyan shoulder-fired missiles to Palestinians and al Qaeda-linked groups in the Egyptian Sinai.

Israel began deploying another system, “Flight Guard,” on El Al after al Qaeda tried to shoot down a planeload of Israeli tourists in Kenya in 2002. Flight Guard’s use of diversionary flares set off safety concerns abroad and the Israelis turned to C-Music, manufactured by Elbit Systems Ltd..

According to the Israeli official, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is covering the $1 million to $1.5 million that it costs to fit C-Music to each plane.

The bathtub-sized pods, built into the planes’ bodies, increase drag in flight, meaning “a few million (dollars) a year” in extra fuel expenses, the official said, adding that this, too, would be borne by the government.

Israel’s main international gateway, Ben-Gurion Airport, is 10 km (6 miles) from the West Bank where, along with the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip, Palestinians want a state.

The Israeli official said he had no information indicating the presence of anti-aircraft missiles in the West Bank—unlike in Gaza, which has seen an influx of smuggled weaponry from Egypt since Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers in 2005.

The official said Netanyahu had, in closed-door discussions, described C-Music as a way to help reassure the Israeli public about security should the government one day give disputed land to the Palestinians under a peace agreement.

Asked for confirmation, Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, quoted him as saying that “in any possible peace deal there have to be effective security arrangements that can deal with a range of security threats, including shoulder-fired missiles.”

Israel also wants to protect traffic to its small airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, which abuts Jordan and Egypt, where Islamist militants have operated in the past. Armed infiltrators killed eight Israelis on the Egyptian border on August 18.

Editing by Alistair Lyon

The Muslim world is out of control

The Muslim world is out of control. And that’s a good thing.

The control of ruthless dictators has declined markedly in less than a single year. Two brutal despots, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, are gone for good, and while it will take time for the citizens of these two states to clean up the mess left them by their erstwhile leaders, they are moving in the right direction. Others, like King Abdullah in Jordan and King Mohammad VI in Morocco, are voluntarily beginning to transfer power, incrementally to be sure, to parliaments.

The old guard running the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is failing to keep discipline among young members who are creating new break-off parties, and as of this writing the Islamist Tunisian Renaissance Party (called Hizb al-Nahda in Arabic) is negotiating with secular parties to try to form a coalition government as a result of its winning 41 percent of the vote in a fair and democratic election. Veteran Islamist popular preachers such as Yusuf Qaradawi, who used to control the media for the Muslim religious right, are swiftly losing ground to savvy young Muslim televangelists. And leaders in Al-Azhar, the bastion of the Muslim old guard in Egypt, are hoping the new government that will be formed in elections a month from now will have a secular bent that protects the rights of all minorities, including Christians.

Whatever happened to the static, unchanging, ever-rigid iceberg of Islamic backwardness?

The answer is that we weren’t paying attention. All the while that we were assuming Muslims were hopelessly stuck, they were, in fact, changing. We weren’t paying attention because it was we who were stuck in the false assumption about Islam that actually has never been true — that Islam is backward and unable to change with the times.

Never have I been more struck by the positive lack of control in the Muslim world than last week in Qatar at two conferences, the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, and the ninth annual conference of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID). Muslim participants represented virtually the entire Muslim world, from Bangladesh to Bosnia, and from Yemen and Somalia to Norway and Sweden. The Interfaith Dialogue conference was particularly interesting because of this year’s theme of new social media and how to use it for enhancing understanding and better relations among religious communities. Not only did we experience plenary sessions and Q-and-A before an international audience of hundreds, we also had the opportunity to take workshops on the latest in the social media trade, including how to avoid its pitfalls and harmful use. And all this in an Arab Muslim state.

What particularly struck me was the openness of discourse among the participants. Not only Muslims and Christians, but a minyan of rabbis representing literally all Jewish religious movements engaged fully in the program, from delivering keynote presentations to chairing panels and even drafting the final summary conference declaration.

Islam always has honored the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, even when it has not had a consistent record of honoring those religions’ practitioners. But Islam has had a history of real trouble with polytheistic religious traditions. And yet, in a plenary session attended by the entire assembly, a Muslim religious scholar who directs an institute of Islamic studies at one of the most prominent Islamic seminaries in India called for future conferences to include non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and others. This would have been impossible even a few years ago.

This year’s conference was far less controlled than the earliest Doha conferences on interfaith dialogue, which excluded Jews. Since those early days, Jews from the Diaspora and from Israel have been invited and have participated, though during periods when relations between Israel and the Arab world deteriorate enough, Israelis are not invited — which is unfortunate because inviting them nevertheless would be a great step forward. OK, there is still government meddling in religious affairs, but they are light-years ahead of where they were only a short while ago, and forward-looking projects like DICID are leading the way.

The Arab Spring has given a huge push to the sea change in the Middle East and North Africa, but the region is a very big ship, and it takes a long time for a turn of the helm to move such a large vessel to a different course. That new course is one in which the old autocratic forms of leadership will lose influence and power as the culture of the region continues to move toward democracy. We need to keep in mind that it will not happen in any way that we can expect or anticipate. Still, we will see real change in our own lifetimes, something that I could hardly have hoped for even a year ago. That’s because people have been pushing the rudder for many years. The molasses seas of dictatorships have, until recently, blocked any significant turn.

Let’s not let our old assumptions remain stuck in the muck of stale thinking. Democracy is a political system that varies from state to state. Christian Democrats control the government of democratic Germany. Not secular Democrats, but Christian Democrats. And in democratic Israel, the National Religious Party and Shas have made themselves indispensable to virtually every government. So, too, will we see Muslim democrats controlling the governments of some Arab democratic political systems. That in and of itself is not cause for alarm. We need to judge by deed and not by name.

The Muslim world is not nearly so simple as we’ve been accustomed to thinking.

Gadhafi and the Jews

Now it can be told: For the last decade or so, the Jews had secret back channels to Muammar Gadhafi.

What led the pro-Israel community into a careful relationship with Gadhafi 10 years ago were considerations of U.S. national interests, Israel’s security needs and the claims of Libyan Jews.

After his overthrow by Libyan rebels and his killing last week, the conclusion among many pro-Israel figures in America is that it was worth it, despite the Libyan strongman’s erratic behavior and his ignoble downfall.

The reason: Gadhafi’s shift away from state terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks eliminated a funder and organizer of threats to Israeli and U.S. interests.

Gadhafi’s overtures to the pro-Israel community began in 2002, when a leader of the Libyan Jewish community in exile, David Gerbi, returned to Libya to bring an elderly aunt to Italy, where he and his family now live. His aunt, Rina Debach, is believed to be the last Jew to have lived in Libya.

Through interlocutors, Gerbi said, “Gadhafi asked me if I could help to normalize the relationship between Libya and the United States.”

Gadhafi’s motives were clear, according to Gerbi: Saddam Hussein was in the U.S. sights at the time, and Gadhafi, who already was tentatively reaching out to the West through Britain, did not want to be next on the list.

Gadhafi agreed to end his nascent weapons of mass destruction programs and to a payout in the billions of dollars to families of victims of the terrorist attack that brought down a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Gerbi, who still hopes to re-establish a Jewish presence in Libya, immediately launched a tour of the United States in hopes of rallying support for bringing Libya into the pro-Western fold. He met with pro-Israel groups and lawmakers.

“There were extensive discussions about what would be appropriate and not appropriate,” recalled Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella group. In the end, “We didn’t want to stand in the way of Libyan Jews having the opportunity to visit.”

Especially notable was the fervor with which the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor who then was the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, embraced the cause. Lantos, with the blessing of a George W. Bush administration seeking to contain radical Islamist influence, visited Libya five times.

“I am rational enough to recognize that we must accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Lantos told the Forward newspaper in 2004 following his first visit. “Gadhafi’s record speaks for itself — it’s an abominable record — but the current actions also speak for themselves. He has now made a 180-degree turn.”

Steve Rosen, now a consultant to a number of groups on Middle East issues, was at the time the director of foreign policy for AIPAC. He said the pro-Israel community decided not to stand in the way of U.S. rapprochement with Libya because of the relief it would offer Israel.

Rosen and Alan Makovsky, a staffer for Lantos, were surprised when, around 2002 — the same time that Gerbi was making the case for Libya in New York and Washington — Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam sought them out at a conference on the Middle East in England.

“He kept finding ways to bring us into the dialogue,” Rosen recalled. “He considered us influential in Washington, because we were pro-Israel.”

Rosen took the younger Gadhafi’s case to the Israelis, who gave AIPAC a green light not to oppose Libya’s overtures — but they also counseled caution.

“Most of them raised an eyebrow, saying you can’t trust Gadhafi, but the idea of a rogue state becoming moderate appealed to them,” Rosen said.

That view seemingly was vindicated when Libya destroyed its weapons of mass destruction under U.S. supervision.

“Israel and its friends are nothing if not pragmatic,” Rosen said. “There are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.”

AIPAC would not comment on the affair. Keith Weissman, Rosen’s deputy at the time, confirmed the account, recalling his own trip to England, at Seif al-Islam Gadhafi’s invitation, in 2003.

“The Israelis liked it, because there was one less guy with a lot of money to spend on bad things,” Weissman said.

Congress removed Libya from the 1990s Iran-Libya sanctions act, and Western oil companies returned to the country.

Most Jewish groups chose not to respond to invitations to visit Libya, noting that while Gadhafi had removed himself as a threat to others, he was still dangerous to his own people.

“Nobody was fooled, everybody knew what Gadhafi was,” said Hoenlein, who, like Rosen, had turned down invitations to visit Libya.

However, Gadhafi’s promises of restitution to Libya’s Jewish exiles — driven out two years before he took power in 1969 — came to naught.

Gerbi, a psychologist invited to Libya in 2007 to assist in Libyan hospitals, suddenly was thrown out of the country, and the items and money he had brought to refurbish synagogues was confiscated.

Much hope now rests on the provisional government that has replaced Gadhafi. Gerbi advocates caution. At the revolutionaries’ invitation, since May he has spent weeks on and off in Libya assisting its people overcome post-traumatic stress.

Yet at Rosh Hashanah, when Gerbi attempted to reopen a shuttered, neglected synagogue in Tripoli, he was met with a virulently anti-Semitic Facebook-organized campaign. Protesters outside the synagogue held up signs proclaiming what Gadhafi had once promised: no Jews in Libya.

Is Assad next?

Bashar Assad must have felt a chill when he saw the pictures of Muamar GadHafi’s final moments and knowing that Syrian crowds were chanting, “Assad is next.”

There are differences between the uprisings in Libya and Syria, but the outcome will be the same: one more tyrant dumped on the dung heap of history.  The only question facing Assad is whether Assad goes vertically or horizontally.

While he contemplates his fate and the death toll passes 3,000, Assad’s international isolation grows.  International sanctions are taking a heavy toll, despite his Chinese and Russian enablers blocking stronger measures by the United Nations.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, the bête noire of the Assad regime, said, “There is not an armed opposition capable” of defeating Assad’s security forces, but that does not make him secure.  Support is crumbling around the country, even in his army.

Ford had to be evacuated from Damascus this week in the face of “credible threats” against him by the regime, the State Department revealed.  He had been the target of an incitement campaign and repeated incidents of intimidation as a result of his high profile visits to conflict sites and his harsh criticism of the regime’s violent attacks on unarmed protesters.

The vast majority of the protests are peaceful but the rising violence around the country coupled with the regime’s deliberate provocation of ethnic and religious friction could spark civil war, Ford told a group of journalists and foreign policy professionals at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy by Skype from Damascus shortly before he was forced to leave.  Civil war is not inevitable, he added, but the possibility cannot be ignored.

Syria expert Andrew Tabler called for a two-pronged approach.  International opponents of the regime should begin working with dissidents to train them in civil disobedience, particularly general strikes, while helping the opposition “develop a plan for post-Assad Syria.”

Tabler, who has spent years working in Syria and is now at the Washington Institute, said U.S. policy should focus on regime change and assemble a “Friends of Syria” group of international and regional countries to coordinate pressure on the regime outside of the United Nations framework because of Russian and Chinese support for Assad.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II told CNN no one has a clue what to do about Syria, and even if they did Assad is “not interested” in taking advice from anyone, including him.

Marc Ginsburg, former ambassador to Morocco, said the success of the U.S. and NATO in removing Gadhafi may bring pressure from Syrian demonstrators for similar help.

Some in the Syrian resistance have called for armed rebellion and NATO intervention in the wake of Gadhafi’s downfall, but the young activists who sparked the uprising have successfully maintained the largely non-violent nature of the demonstrations.

Ford said some armed gangs linked to Islamic militant groups may be contributing to the violence for their own ends.  But no one is buying the regime’s consistent insistence that the unrest is caused by a “Western, American and Zionist conspiracy.”

The economy is in deep trouble and bound to get worse. Consumption is down, business is hurting and the economy is contracting.

A rapidly growing population facing rapidly shrinking opportunities for jobs while demanding greater freedom makes up the backbone of the protest movement, Tabler said.

The Syrian National Council was formed in Turkey last month an attempt to bring together opposition leaders and present an alternative to the Assad regime. There is widespread concern about the disproportionate influence of Islamists, particularly the Moslem Brotherhood, within the Council, at the expense of Kurds, Druze, Christians and other minorities.  Another concern is influence of the Islamist government of Turkey, which seeks to spread its foothold across the old Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, Assad is spreading tentacles abroad into Lebanon, Turkey and even into the United States.

Syrian troops have crossed into Lebanon to capture or kill Syrian dissidents and defecting soldiers, according to the State Department, which called on the Lebanese government to do a better job policing its borders and protecting those fleeing Assad’s “violence and brutality.”

Similarly, Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border have been pursued by Assad’s soldiers, and the Turkish government has warned of reprisals.

A Virginia man was recently arrested by the FBI and charged with heading a network collecting information on peaceful anti-Assad protesters for use by the intelligence services to intimidate, arrest, torture and even kill family members in order to silence critics in exile.

The toll of tyrants, dictators and terror kingpins has grown dramatically during the Obama years, most notably Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Walaki and Muammar Gadhafi.

Is Bashar Assad next?  Inshallah.

He won’t be missed, but what is most important is what will come next in a troubled, turbulent Syria.

UN rights office urges inquiry into Gadhafi death

The United Nations human rights office called on Friday for a full investigation into the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi and voiced concerns that he may have been executed.

Images filmed on mobile phones before and after Gadhafi’s death showed him wounded and bloodied but clearly alive after his capture in his hometown of Sirte on Thursday, and then dead amidst a jostling crowd of anti-Gadhafi fighters.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what happened exactly. There seem to be four or five different versions of how he died,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told Reuters Television in an interview.

“If you take these two videos together, they are rather disturbing because you see someone who has been captured alive and then you see the same person dead.

“We are not in a position to say what has happened at this point but we feel that it is very important that this is clarified, that there is some sort of serious investigation into what happened and what caused his death,” he said.

Asked whether the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay was concerned Gadhafi may have been executed while in captivity, Colville replied: “It has to be one possibility when you look at these two videos. So that’s something that an investigation needs to look into.”

Gadhafi’s body lay in an old meat store on Friday as arguments swirled over his burial and the circumstances of his death.

With a bullet wound visible through the familiar curly hair, the corpse shown to Reuters in Misrata bore other marks of the violent end to a violent life that was being broadcast to the world in snatches of grainy, gory cellphone video.

A television station based in Syria that supported Gadhafi said on Friday that the slain Libyan leader’s wife had asked for a U.N. investigation into his death.

Colville said it was is a fundamental principle of international law that people accused of serious crimes should be tried if possible. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants in June for Gadhafi, his son Saif al-Islam and their intelligence chief for crimes against humanity.

“Summary executions are strictly illegal under any circumstances. It’s different if someone is killed in combat. There was a civil war taking place in Libya. So if the person died as part of combat, that is a different issue and that is normally acceptable under the circumstances,” he said.

“But if something else has happened, if someone is captured and then deliberately killed, then that is a very serious matter,” he said.

Libya’s interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said Gadhafi was killed in a “crossfire” while being brought to hospital after his capture. A doctor who examined Gadhafi’s body said he had been fatally wounded by a bullet in his intestines.

But a senior interim ruling National Transitional Council source told Reuters Gadhafi was killed by his captors: “While he was being taken away, they beat him and then they killed him,” the source said. “He might have been resisting.”

In one of the videos that emerged, Gadhafi is hauled by his hair from the hood of a truck. Someone shouts: “Keep him alive!”

Gadhafi disappears from view and shots ring out.

An international commission of inquiry, launched by the U.N. Human Rights Council, is already investigating killings, torture and other crimes in Libya.

Colville said he expected that the team, now headed by former ICC President Philippe Kirsch, would look into the circumstances of Gadhafi’s death and make recommendations about the need for either a full national or international probe.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Roger Atwood

Obama respond to Gadhafi death

[UPDATE] President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States would be a partner to Libya following the death of Muammar Gadhafi and said the NATO mission in the North African country would “soon come to an end.”

“This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya,” he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.

Obama also said the death of Gadhafi, as reported by Libyan authorities, was significant in the Arab world where protests have provoked the fall of long-standing dictators. “The rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end,” he said.

[Oct. 20, 11 am] President Barack Obama will say publicly on Thursday that he believes deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi is likely dead, an administration official said.

“In his remarks, the president will cite the fact that Libyan officials have announced Gadhafi’s death. We have also received similar reports through diplomatic channels and have confidence in this reporting,” a White House official said.

[Oct. 20, 9:50 am] U.S. officials on Thursday scrambled to check reports that deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi had died after being captured near his hometown of Sirte following months of civil war.

Gadhafi was wounded in the head and legs as he tried to flee in a convoy that came under attack from NATO warplanes at dawn, a senior official with Libya’s National Transitional Council told Reuters.

A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. was working to confirm the reports.

“We’re working on it,” the official said.

Gadhafi’s death followed months of NATO military action in Libya that began over a government crackdown against pro-democracy protesters inspired by protests in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt that ended in the overthrow of long-standing autocratic leaders.

The United States led the initial air strikes on Gadhafi’s forces but quickly handed the lead over to NATO, while taking a secondary role to Britain and France.

The NATO bombing campaign helped Libya’s rebels take power.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday became the most senior U.S. official to visit Tripoli since Gadhafi’s four-decade rule ended in August.

Clinton hailed “Libya’s victory.” But her visit was marked by tight security in a sign of worries that the country’s new rulers have yet to establish full control over the country.

Gadhafi was wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of ordering the killing of civilians.

He was believed to be hiding deep in Libya’s Sahara desert. His wife, two sons and a daughter fled to neighboring Algeria shortly after Tripoli fell to rebel forces in August.

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Alister Bull, Jeff Mason, Laura MacInnis and David Morgan; Editing by Vicki Allen

Obama: Gadhafi death is warning to iron-fist rulers

[UPDATE] See video below.

President Barack Obama hailed Muammar Gadhafi’s death as a warning to authoritarian leaders across the Middle East that iron-fisted rule “inevitably comes to an end” and as vindication for his cautious U.S. strategy on Libya.

Obama joined U.S. politicians and ordinary Americans in welcoming the demise of Gadhafi, who was for decades regarded as a nemesis of American presidents, and he also sought to claim some of the credit for the Libyan strongman’s downfall.

“This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya,” Obama told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.

Obama made clear that he considered Gadhafi’s death a vindication of his “leading from behind” strategy that had drawn criticism at home for casting the United States in a support role in the NATO air assault in Libya.

Story continues after the jump.

“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we have achieved our objectives,” Obama said in a televised statement to Americans already weary of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. reaction reflected a tortured history with Gadhafi, viewed in the United States as a villain for his government’s links to the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland and a 1986 disco bombing in Berlin that targeted U.S. troops.

Obama also touted Gadhafi’s death as a warning to other authoritarian rulers in Middle East where revolts have already upended longtime leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

Washington is pressing for further sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over his harsh crackdown on democracy protests.

“For the region, today’s events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end,” Obama said.

Obama said the United States would be a partner to Libya’s interim government and urged a swift transition to democratic elections, but he made no specific promises of aid.

Relatives of American victims of the flight blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland by Libyan agents 23 years ago said justice was served with Gadhafi’s death as he fled his home town and final bastion. [ID:nL5E7LJ3ZE]

“I hope he’s in hell with Hitler,” said Kathy Tedeschi, whose first husband Bill Daniels was among the 270 people killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Tabassum Zakaria, John Whitesides, Michelle Nichols; Editing by Doina Chiacu

Libyan exile launches effort to restore Tripoli synagogue

Libyan Jewish exile David Gerbi began digging out Tripoli’s main synagogue in an attempt to restore the building.

Gerbi, who arrived in Libya from Italy this summer when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was ousted in a rebellion, on Sunday began the work of surveying the damage to the Dar al-Bishi synagogue, The Associated Press reported. He had spent weeks getting permission from the country’s new leaders.

Gerbi, a representative of the World Organization of Libyan Jews, told Reuters that he is applying to become a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council as a full member to represent the Jewish community. He also plans to reclaim Jewish properties confiscated by the state.

Most Tripoli synagogues have been destroyed or converted to mosques. Jewish cemeteries also have been torn down to make room for office buildings.

Gerbi fled Libya with his family in 1967 when he was 12 years old.

Syrian protesters chant “Bye Gadhafi, Bashar next”

Syrian protesters chanted “Bye, bye Gadhafi, Bashar your turn is coming” overnight, but President Bashar al-Assad showed few signs of cracking after months of demonstrations and his forces raided an eastern tribal region again on Thursday.

The new chant, inspired by the apparent collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, was filmed by residents in the Damascus suburb of Duma after prayers on Wednesday.

But in eastern Syria, tanks and armored vehicles entered Shuhail, a town southeast of the provincial capital of Deir al-Zor, where daily protests have taken place against Assad’s rule since the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, they said.

“Initial reports by residents describe tens of tanks firing randomly as they stormed the town at dawn. Shuhail has been very active in protests and the regime is using overwhelming force to frighten the people,” a local activist said.

Since Ramadan began on August 1, tanks have entered the cities of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military, Deir al-Zor and Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, trying to crush dissent after months of street protests.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an activist group based in Britain, said 11 civilians had been killed across Syria on Wednesday, including seven in the province of Homs.

State news agency SANA said “armed terrorist groups” killed eight soldiers when they ambushed two military vehicles near the towns of Rastan and Telbiseh.

Syria has expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts on the ground from authorities and activists.

Prominent cartoonist and Assad critic Ali Ferzat was beaten up in Damascus by a group of armed men and then dumped in the street, an opposition activist group said. SOHR said Ferzat was taken to hospital with bruises to his face and hands.

Ferzat, whose cartoons often mock repression and injustice in the Arab world, has criticized Assad’s repression of protests. He told Al Arabiya television three weeks ago: “For the first time there is a genuine and free revolution in Syria.”


The defeat of Gadhafi may encourage Western nations to step up moves against Assad. He has pursued parallel policies of strengthening ties with Iran and Shi’ite Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah while seeking peace talks with Israel and accepting European and U.S. overtures that were key in rehabilitating him on the international stage.

European Union diplomats said on Wednesday the bloc’s governments were likely to impose an embargo on imports of Syrian oil by the end of next week, although new sanctions may be less stringent than those imposed by Washington.

Syria exports over a third of its 385,000 barrels of daily crude oil output to Europe, mainly the Netherlands, Italy, France and Spain.

A disruption would cut off a major source of foreign currency that helps to finance the security apparatus, and restrict funds at Assad’s disposal to reward loyalists and continue a crackdown in which the United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed.

In a sign the prospect of sanctions was already having an effect, traders said French oil major Total had not lifted a cargo of naphtha from Syria’s Banias refinery which it had bought in a tender.

Arab League ministers will meet in Cairo on Saturday to discuss Syria. An official said they would discuss imposing a time frame for Assad to enact reforms.

But they would also call on “all parties to end the conflict,” the official said, in an apparent acceptance of Syria’s argument it faces armed opponents.

In an interview with state television this week, Assad said the unrest “has shifted toward armed acts.” Authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist groups,” who they say have killed an unspecified number of civilians and 500 soldiers and police.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said it was up to the Syrian authorities and people to find a way out of the unrest.

“The hope of the West is to attack Syria they way they intervened in Libya but the people and the government in Syria should sit down together and reach an understanding on reforms,” he told al-Manar television channel.

“The people should have the right to elections, freedom and justice (so) they should set the timeline about it (together).”

Human Rights Watch said in a new report the vast majority of civilian deaths documented by Syrian human rights groups “have occurred in circumstances in which there was no threat to Syrian forces.”

“President al-Assad has said he is pursuing a battle against ‘terrorist groups’ and ‘armed gangs,’ and Syrian authorities have claimed that they have ‘exercised maximum restraint while trying to control the situation’. Neither claim is true,” the report said.

It said Syrian forces had killed at least 49 people since Assad told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on August 17 military and police operations had stopped, adding that on August 22 in Homs, Syrian forces “fired on a crowd of peaceful protesters shortly after a U.N. humanitarian assessment team left the area, killing four.”

The official state news agency quoted Assad as telling clerics during a Ramadan “iftar” meal on Wednesday the West was pressuring Syria “to sell out, which will not happen because the Syrian people have chosen to have an independent will.”

Editing by Dominic Evans and Sophie Hares

Pentagon: Rebels control most of Tripoli, Gadhafi in Libya

Libyan rebels appeared to be in control of most of Tripoli, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, adding that it was sticking to its assessment that leader Muammar Gadhafi had not left the country.

Calling the situation fluid, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said that Gadhafi’s forces remained dangerous even though their command capabilities had been diminished by major rebel advances into the heart of the capital and NATO air strikes.

The United States, which is providing Predator drones and other air capabilities to the NATO mission, sharply stepped up the tempo of its air strikes on Libya over the past week and a half, according to Pentagon data.

“It’s still very fluid, there’s still fighting going on,” Lapan said. “While we believe that opposition forces control a large part of the country, Libya and Tripoli in particular are still very dangerous places.”

Asked specifically about Tripoli, Lapan said the situation was too fluid to put a precise percentage on how much of the city was under rebel control. Rebel leaders say 80 percent of the Libyan capital is now controlled by forces opposed to Gadhafi.

“Majority (control of Tripoli) is safe but I wouldn’t get beyond that,” he said.

The United States was monitoring Libya’s chemical weapons sites, Lapan said, amid concern in Congress that those and other Libyan weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Lapan said he was aware of a total of two Scud missile launches by Gadhafi forces. A U.S. official told Reuters that neither caused any injuries or deaths.

“Regime forces are going to use whatever means they have to continue to inflict damage on their opponents and on the civilian population,” he said.

The Pentagon said on Monday that it believed Gadhafi had not left the country, a position Lapan reaffirmed on Tuesday, saying: “Nothing’s changed.”

Still, he did not offer any more precise assessment about Gadhafi’s potential whereabouts.

Gadhafi’s son and presumed heir Saif al-Islam told a crowd that his father was well and still in Tripoli, confounding reports of his capture.

Asked whether the Pentagon was surprised by the emergence of Gadhafi’s son, whom the rebels had initially said was in their hands, Lapan said: “We’ve seen conflicting reports. Again it goes back to a very fluid situation … We continue to see conflicting reports about the whereabouts certain individuals.”

Editing by Philip Barbara

U.N. chief: Gadhafi forces must end fighting in Libya

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday called on forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi to stop fighting and allow a peaceful transition of power in the oil-producing North African state.

“It is crucial now for the conflict to end with no further loss of life and retribution,” he said. “I welcome the assurances given by the chairman of the National Transitional Council … that extreme care would be taken to protect people and public institutions and to maintain law and order.”

“I call on Colonel Gadhafi’s forces to cease violence immediately and make way for a smooth transition,” he said.

Speaking to reporters, Ban said he intended to convene an urgent meeting later this week of the heads of regional and international organizations like the African Union, Arab League and European Union to discuss the situation in Libya.

He said that his special envoy on post-conflict planning for Libya, Ian Martin, and the U.N. envoy for Libya, Abdel Elah al-Khatib, would travel to Doha soon to meet with the leadership of Libya’s rebel National Transitional Council.

“The United Nations stands ready to extend all possible assistance to the Libyan people,” Ban said.

He added that all U.N. member states are obligated to comply with decisions of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief on suspicion of crimes against humanity and other war crimes.

The Libyan rebels, who say they have captured Saif al-Islam and two other Gadhafi sons, have indicated they might want to try the trio in Libya instead of handing them over the ICC.

“The international community has a duty, all the member states of the United Nations, … to fully comply with the decisions of the ICC,” he said.

Reporting by Louis Charbonneau, editing by Eric Beech

Obama urges Gadhafi loyalists to lay down arms

President Barack Obama urged Muammar Gadhafi on Monday to end the bloodshed in Libya as pockets of his loyalist forces engaged in fierce fighting against advancing rebels.

Reminding the United States that Gadhafi had “murdered scores of American citizens,” Obama interrupted his vacation to herald Gadhafi’s fall and urged him to limit the killing.

“Although it is clear Gadhafi’s rule is over, he still has the opportunity to reduce bloodshed by explicitly relinquishing power to the people of Libya and calling for those forces that continue to fight to lay down their arms,” Obama said.

While rebels hunted for Gadhafi in Tripoli, some forces loyal to the autocratic leader were resisting.

“This is not over yet,” Obama warned in a statement from the farm where his family is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Vowing the United States would be a “friend and partner” to help the emergence of a democratic Libya, Obama also cautioned rebels against exacting revenge for Gadhafi’s brutal rule.

“True justice will not come from reprisals and violence. It will come from reconciliation and a Libya that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny,” Obama said.

Analysts see risks that Islamic militants with links to Al Qaeda may take advantage of instability after the crumbling of Gadhafi’s control over the country and gain a strong footing in the oil-producing nation.

Obama made plain that the United States would oppose any group within the loose coalition of rebels that has fought Gadhafi from imposing its power over other parts of Libyan society.

International Criminal Court: Gadhafi planned civilian killings

The International Criminal Court has evidence Muammar Gadhafi’s government planned to put down protests by killing civilians before the uprising in Libya broke out, the ICC’s prosecutor said on Tuesday.

The peaceful protests that erupted on Feb. 15 descended into civil war as Gadhafi’s forces first fired on demonstrators, then violently put down the uprisings that followed in the west, leaving the east and the third city of Misrata in rebel hands.

NATO-led air power is now holding the balance in Libya, preventing Gadhafi’s forces overrunning the seven-week old revolt, but unable for now to hand the rebels outright victory.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Obama: Gadhafi "needs to go" [VIDEO]

United States President Barack Obama said on Monday that the U.S. policy on Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi is that he “needs to go.”

Speaking at a news conference with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, Obama said the military objective in Libya is to guard civilians from attacks by Gadhafi, not oust him from power.

Obama also added that the U.S. expects to transfer the lead military role in Libya to other allies in a matter of days.

Video courtesy of AP.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Libya declares cease-fire in wake of UN vote to intervene [VIDEO]

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa annouces a cease-fire.

Libya declared a ceasefire in the country and will comply with a United Nations resolution passed overnight, Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa said on Friday. The conciliatory message was in sharp contrast to comments made by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi just before the UN vote, in which he said that forces loyal to him would mercilessly attack rebels.

“We decided on an immediate ceasefire and on an immediate stop to all military operations,” he told reporters. “(Libya) takes great interest in protecting civilians,” he said, adding that the country would also protect all foreigners and foreign assets in Libya.

The UN Security Council, meeting in a emergency session on Thursday, passed a resolution endorsing a no-fly zone to halt government troops now around 100 kilometers from Benghazi. It also authorized “all necessary measures” – code for military action – to protect civilians against Gadhafi’s forces.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

U.S. warns Libya over possible military action [VIDEO]

United States President Barak Obama condemned embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi Friday, warning that the U.S. will take military action if Gadhafi does not comply with the terms iterated in the UN Security Council resolution passed Thursday.

The U.S. president called on Gadhafi to implement a complete cease-fire immediately, saying that this means “all attacks against civilians must stop. Gadhafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi; pull them back from Adjadbiya, Misrata and Zawiyah.”

He also called on the Libyan leader to reestablish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the people of Libya.

Video courtesy of PBS NewsHour.

Read more at Haaretz.com.