Despite Rebel Surge, Gaddafi’s Vindictive Resolve Endures

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Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is surrounded by supporters and journalists at his father's residential complex in the Libyan capital of Tripoli in the early hours of Aug. 23, 2011 (Photo: Imed Lamloum / AFP / Getty Images)

No one thought Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his hard-core supporters would go away easily, and more than 48 hours after rebel forces stormed the capital of Tripoli, that determination to dig in was still evident. But if few observers believe Gaddafi’s renewed efforts to prove his regime remains a force to reckon with can turn back what appears to be a looming victory for the rebels, some warn his penchant for creating serious trouble for his foes won’t disappear with his defeat. If one thing seems sure about the Gaddafi clan members, it’s their zeal for dishing out payback, even when that seems to be all they have left.

That gritty resolve and spitefulness was apparent even amid the rebel surge that gave anti-regime forces control of what some accounts say is 90% of Tripoli. Early Tuesday morning, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, once the heir apparent to power, turned up in a Tripoli neighborhood still held by regime supporters vowing to defeat their enemies yet. The younger Gaddafi’s combative re-emergence came after officials from the National Transitional Council (NTC) announced his arrest by their forces in Tripoli — as was the case for another Gaddafi son, who also resurfaced after escaping his captors. Meanwhile, later in the day, rebel forces struggled to cut off troops loyal to Gaddafi from advancing on the colonel’s oil-producing hometown of Sirte — one of the few Libyan cities the regime still nominally controls, and the site from which at least two Scud missiles have been fired toward rebel-held towns. That new evidence of the regime’s resolve to continue battling against seemingly impossible odds led leaders from around the world to renew calls to Gaddafi to cease fighting, spare the Libyan people further bloodshed and give himself up for what remains still undefined treatment by a postwar government.

Good luck with that — especially since there is an indication that the hunkered-down Gaddafi and his allies are set on taking as many of their enemies down with them as they can. And that will doubtless remain a goal of Gaddafi’s inner circle in the likelihood that its principal members can be rounded up. Because the bottom line, some experts say, is that virtually all nations have dealt with Gaddafi in one way or another since he dismantled his arms program and renounced terrorism in 2003 — meaning officials in many countries are at risk of being tainted with the smear that inevitably comes with doing business with the unscrupulous Libyan leader.

“Given his complete control of Libya, Gaddafi made no distinction between its politics, economy and society, and tried to impose that unaccountable, monarchic vision in his dealings with the leaders and political parties of foreign nations,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a Middle East specialist for the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “Gaddafi made up his laws at home, which meant dealing with him often involved demands, conditions or favor trading that wouldn’t be considered legitimate — or even legal — in a lot of countries. But it was an imposed aspect of relations with him. Because of that, there are a lot of intelligence services in a lot of countries that will be working to make sure Gaddafi’s archives are secured by trustworthy hands once his regime falls, because it’s likely that a lot of the dirt Gaddafi was responsible for left a lot of powerful people dirty.”

Even gaining control of Gaddafi’s secret records might not prevent Gaddafi and his lieutenants from accusing foreign figures of actions that, even unsubstantiated, Western publics might find troubling. Some already have. In March, Saif al-Islam claimed that his father financed the victorious 2007 campaign of French President Nicolas Sarkozy — doubtless in retaliation for Sarkozy’s leading role in mounting the NATO-led air intervention in the Libyan war. Though there’s no evidence to suggest the claim is true, the allegation was given a longer look than it might have in France given Sarkozy’s well-known interaction with the iffy Gaddafi, and Gaddafi Jr.’s role in that.

Saif al-Islam was central to Sarkozy’s first big global coup after his election: the July 2007 release of Bulgarian medical workers who had been sentenced to death in Libya on what were widely considered trumped-up murder charges. (A death sentence, ironically, that current NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil confirmed and defended as Gaddafi’s Justice Minister.) A lot of money was known to have exchanged hands as part of the agreement that secured the medics’ release, and a flurry of contracts was signed between Paris and Tripoli in that event’s wake. Sarkozy’s reputation then took a serious blow in December of that year when he fulfilled promises made during negotiations to free the Bulgarians to host the Libyan leader on a state visit — a trip that proved a controversial embarrassment in many ways. None of that has been found to have been illegal, though the contacts did provide evidence of just how far Paris was willing to bend to work with Gaddafi’s Libya.

But France is hardly alone in having engaged in outwardly normal agreements with Libya that may have involved less-savory conditions below the surface. The U.S., Germany and former colonial power Italy have all closed big business deals in Gaddafi-dominated Libya over the past decade in spite of the protests that his regime remained too toxic to touch. Still, all of those countries are thought to have been outdone in such activity by Britain. In 2009, Scotland’s release of convicted Lockerbie bombing operative Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi sparked not only an international outcry but also charges that the humanitarian grounds for sending the gravely ill prisoner home masked the political and financial interests of signing more energy contracts with Gaddafi’s Libya. But if there, too, no evidence has surfaced to prove anything legally objectionable was involved, the general outlook remains that whenever there’s troubling smoke surrounding Gaddafi, there’s always fire below the surface.

“The trap with Gaddafi has always been that if you touch Libya at all, you’re almost guaranteed to wind up dirty to some degree or another,” says a French security official, who adds that he has no direct knowledge of the conditions involved in the political or economic agreements between European capitals and Tripoli. “Within that context, it’s similar to the dilemma of dealing with lots of Middle Eastern regimes to the extent that accepting conditions that aren’t considered ethical at home is part and parcel of doing business in the region. With Gaddafi, that was pushed to the limit.”

If so, that would be one reason that nations involved in the NATO-led intervention might want the NTC to assure that all confidential material held by the Gaddafi government is located, secured and even destroyed as part of its taking power. Yet as Middle East specialist Bitar points out, even that wouldn’t necessarily rob Gaddafi of his vindictive powers. Merely leveling detailed charges against foreign figures would be enough to raise considerable doubts about wrongdoing in Europe and the U.S. — where Gaddafi’s reputation as consummately corrupt is well established. And that may factor into the decision of whether to hand Gaddafi and his clique over to the international tribunal seeking to try him for crimes against humanity or deprive them such a global platform by leaving him in Libya to face justice.

“There are a lot of voices — including inside the NTC — that are adamant about trying Gaddafi in Libya for crimes committed in Libya, and given recent Western indecision about Gaddafi’s fate once the conflict is over, it may be to everyone’s advantage that he be dealt with in Libya,” says Bitar. “In addition to limiting his ability to accuse foreign leaders and parties of corruption, he’d also have a harder time making what I’m sure will be the case he and Saif al-Islam will be keen to pursue about the NATO operation having violated international law by surpassing its legal U.N. mandate. So it may work out best for everyone if Gaddafi faces justice in Libya — though I’m not sure the international court would agree about that. ”