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The end of the beginning for Libya

Western and Arab nations that have helped bring the rebels within sight of victory should redouble efforts to ensure they win the peace, too

THE RATCHET is tightening on Muammar Qadhafi. At press time, rebel forces were on the streets of Tripoli. They had claimed control of Zawiyah, west of the capital, and its refinery, the only one still available to the regime. Rebels had cut off critical supply routes, while Nato’s interdiction of seaborne fuel supplies has left things desperate in the capital.

As the rebel noose tightened, Tripoli erupted against the dictator. The momentum appeared unstoppable.

If it comes as quickly as some expect – it will be over by the end of August, believe optimistic rebels – the opposition forces and Nato will justifiably claim vindication for a sound strategy. The war was never the stalemate imagined by some in Western capitals.

But Qadhafi’s fall will be only the end of the beginning. Power in Libya’s state was highly centralised on the colonel and his family. Their departure will leave a void. The Benghazi-based rebel government cannot fill it without co-operation from Tripoli’s elite, all of which depended on Qadhafi for patronage.

Qadhafi’s fall will be only the end of the beginning. Power in Libya’s state was highly centralised on the colonel and his family. Their departure will leave a void

Getting the oil industry up and running again is the priority. Rebel-controlled Arabian Gulf Oil says some output will resume in three weeks – the first week of September. Production from the Sarir and Misla fields in the southeast will yield just 300,000 b/d. That would generate almost $1 billion a month in export revenue – a generous sum compared with the pittance on which the National Transitional Council (NTC) has depended for the past few months, but not enough to rebuild Libya after the war.

Tripoli-based National Oil Company (NOC) will have to take control of the sector again. That may not play well with the Benghazi-based shadow NOC, set up by the NTC.

That is one of many new conflicts to come after the war. Equally serious ones will emerge when the NTC seeks to impose its authority over the battle-hardened rebels of the west. Misrata’s rebels have already chafed at Benghazi’s bosses. And even within Benghazi new militias will be difficult to quell once the common enemy is gone.

Whether pro-Qadhafi forces willingly lay down their arms, or the mercenaries return home once their income is cut, are other problems. Relying on the African Union or Arab League to maintain the peace is the outcome Western governments would prefer – but may not instil much faith among foreign investors.

Italian, French, Canadian and UK firms will be welcomed with open arms by the new government, but they will need strong stomachs

And such investment will be critical in a colossal rebuilding campaign. Italian, French, Canadian and UK firms will be welcomed with open arms by the new government, but they will need strong stomachs. Libya’s war may be coming to an end, but new, serious conflicts are on their way. The rebels could soon be selling oil again, but don’t expect a return to pre-war levels for many months or, if Iraq is anything to go by, for years.

In the meantime, the Western and Arab nations that have helped bring the rebels within sight of victory should redouble efforts to ensure they win the peace, too. The alternative is yet more chaos in one of the world’s most important oil exporting countries.

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