When rebels ransacked Moammar Gadhafi's compound and paraded gleefully with his military hats and golf cart in Tripoli this week, the scenes sparked memories of the looting of Baghdad in 2003. It was a reminder that Libya could plunge into the same post-war anarchy that terrorized Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when thousands of civilians were killed.
So far, the Libyan rebels have managed to limit the disorder in most cities they have captured, including Tripoli. Aside from the ransacking of the Gadhafi compound and the homes of his sons and daughter, there are few reports of deliberate looting or revenge killings in the capital, and the captured cities in the rest of Libya have been surprisingly stable.
But analysts warn that there's a high risk of violent chaos erupting if preventive action is not taken. Because of this danger, there will be pressure to deploy foreign peacekeepers or police units across Libya under United Nations authority, despite the opposition of many Libyans to any foreign military presence on their soil.
Western leaders have promised "no boots on the ground" in Libya, but they might have to abandon their promise if the rebels are unable to stabilize the country. One U.S. expert, Daniel Serwer, has called for a 3,000-member paramilitary police force under European leadership to maintain public security in the post-war period.
The question of a peacekeeping force is just one of many urgent issues that confront the rebels and their Western allies as the Gadhafi regime disintegrates. Libya was never a modern political state – its institutions were crushed by the paranoid dictator, who feared any challenge to his rule – and his military collapse could create a dangerous vacuum of power.
"It is this twin challenge – replacing an autocratic regime and rebuilding a new state from the ground up – that will be so daunting for the new leadership," the International Crisis Group, an independent Brussels-based group, said in a commentary this week. "Much hard work will need to be done very quickly to reduce the real risk of the country slipping into chaos."
Western leaders have vowed that they won't repeat the mistakes of Iraq this time. One of the worst mistakes in Iraq was the policy of purging the rank-and-file members of Saddam Hussein's political system. This encouraged revenge attacks and left a gaping hole in Iraq's institutions, destabilizing the entire country. "Libyans should not be led down this destructive track of politicized score-settling and witch-hunts," the Crisis Group said.
The rebels, grouped together in the Transitional National Council, have pledged to prevent any violent revenge attacks. But their credibility was heavily damaged by the mysterious assassination of the rebel military chief, Abdel Fattah Younis, after he was taken into custody by the rebels last month. The killing is still unexplained.
There are also worries that the post-war political climate could be paralyzed by divisions within the rebel movement, including regional conflicts or clashes between secular and religious factions. The transitional council is based in eastern Libya, yet significantly it was western rebels who liberated Tripoli this week, and it is unclear if they are fully loyal to the rebel headquarters in the east.
The transitional council has been careful to say all of the right things. It has promised an emphasis on stability and security. It has committed itself to elections within the next year, a new constitution, a referendum on that constitution, and a stabilization force of up to 15,000 new "Tripoli Guards" who would prevent bloodshed in the post-war period.
But many analysts are skeptical of these promises. Even the head of the transitional council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has admitted that the challenge of post-war governing "will not be a bed of roses."
One crucial issue is the flow of money. The rebels will need financing to stabilize the country and rebuild its shattered infrastructure, but an estimated $165-billion in Libyan assets are still frozen worldwide. And the country's oil production has been crippled by the war, with many refineries and oil fields shut down by war damage. Libyan oil production today is barely 5 per cent of what it was before the war.
The rebels have acknowledged that it will take at least nine months to revive Libya's oil production. In the meantime, they are pressing for the speedy release of billions of dollars of frozen assets, particularly in the United States and Britain, to kick-start their rebuilding efforts.