Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Who are we bombing Libya for?

Big day in Westminster with up to 40 governments attending the London conference on Libya.

The Prime Minister is greeting US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton about now but,just as importantly, he is due to meet Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for Libya's rebel National Transitional Council.

Earlier Foreign Secretary William Hague also met with Jibril, whom he invited to London but not to the conference.

Jibril is the de-facto Prime Minister of the National Transitional Council in Libya, already recognised by French President Sarkozy as the legitimate government of the country.

He was a Gaddafi government minister until recently, and as head of Nedb (National Economic Development Board) he promoted privatization and liberalization of Libyan econony and looked after US and UK investments in the country. He is, in that respect, a man we have already done business with.

While the question of what will happen to Gaddafi, and whether he will be offered an exit route, is dominating the morning agenda less is being asked about would replace him.

There was a sobering piece in the Guardian yesterday by Simon Tisdall which raised some awkward questions about the transitional council and the ragtag army that is racing down the road towards Tripoli.

He quotes various experts on the tribal and religious make-up of the Gaddafi opposition. Here's one of the key passages:

Eastern Libya also has a different religious tradition from the rest of the country and this was reflected in the rebels' transitional council, argued Andy Stone, a columnist on the Nolan Chart website. "This is no Solidarnosc movement," he said (referring to the Polish trade union-led anti-communist movement).

"The [Libyan] revolt was started on February 15-17 by the group called the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition [an umbrella organisation founded in London in 2005]. The protests had a clear fundamentalist religious motivation and were convened to commemorate the 2006 Danish cartoons protests which had been particularly violent in Benghazi." (The 2006 protests had turned into an anti-Gaddafi demonstration).

Stone went on to claim that much of the eastern Libyan opposition to Gaddafi was rooted in the region's strong Islamist tradition which resulted, for example, in a large numbers of eastern Libyan jihadis taking part in the Iraq war (second in number only to Saudis) and support for the al-Qaida-affiliated, anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, many of whose members had fought in Afghanistan.

"It is these same religiously and ideologically trained east Libyans who are now armed and arrayed against Gaddafi. Gaddafi's claim that all his opponents are members of al-Qaida is overblown, but also not very far off in regard to their sympathies. Anyone claiming the eastern Libyans are standing for secular, liberal values needs to overcome a huge burden of proof," Stone wrote.

British diplomats, Tisdall notes, counter that it is overblown to claim that the rebel movement is dominated by Islamists. Most Libyans, like most people all over the world, are secular and tolerant says a former British diplomat quoted by Tisdall.

Let's hope he's right. It would be bad news to be bombing the road to Tripoli on behalf of al Qaida.

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