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Debating Intervention: Is U.S.-Led Military Action the Best Solution to Libya Crisis?

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Forces loyal to Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi continue to advance on rebel-held towns amidst ongoing U.S.-led air strikes. Gaddafi’s deadly crackdown on the Libyan uprising has sparked debate on longstanding questions around international intervention. We’re joined by Libyan poet, scholar and University of Michigan professor Khaled Mattawa, who supports U.S.-led intervention, and UCLA law professor Asli Bali, who says the U.S.-led coalition has ignored viable alternatives to military attacks. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMar 22, 2011“The No-Fly Zone Has Always Been a Recipe for Disaster”: Jeremy Scahill Says Libyan Strategy Has No Endgame
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. and allied air strikes on Libya have entered their fifth day as part of an international effort to enforce a no-fly zone approved by the U.N. Security Council. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s air force and his long-range air defense systems have largely been destroyed, according to the U.S. commander of the allied task force charged with enforcing the U.N. resolution.

U.S. Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III said yesterday U.S. and allied forces have launched 162 Tomahawk missiles and conducted more than 100 attacks with precision-guided satellite bombs since the operation began. But he conceded air strikes had failed to stop Libyan government forces from launching attacks against civilians.

Meanwhile, President Obama has been negotiating with coalition partners how to step down from the U.S. leadership position in the coming days.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people, but we will not be in the lead. That’s with the transition that I discussed has always been designed to do. We have unique capabilities. We came in, up front, fairly heavily, fairly substantially, and at considerable risk to our military personnel. And when this transition takes place, it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone.

AMY GOODMAN: Late yesterday, Gaddafi made his first televised appearance since the bombing campaign began. Speaking from the Bab al-Aziziya compound targeted Sunday, he urged “all Islamic armies” to join him. Delivering a defiant address, he vowed to continue fighting and told his supporters they would emerge victorious in the war against rebels and international forces.

But in an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested Gaddafi loyalists are seeking ways out for the embattled leader. She said, “We’ve heard about other people close to him reaching out to people that they know around the world — Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North [America], beyond — saying, 'What do we do? How do we get out of this? What happens next?'” Clinton said she is unaware if Gaddafi himself had reached out.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not aware that he personally has reached out, but I do know that people, allegedly on his behalf, have been reaching out. So, that’s why I say this is a very dynamic situation.

DIANE SAWYER: But are you indicating that there’s someone close to him, on his behalf, reaching out to say, “How do we get out? How does he get out?”

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: This is what we hear from so many sources, Diane. It is a constant —


SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: Today, yesterday, the day before. Some of it — I’ll be very — you know, this is my personal opinion — some of it is theater. A lot of it is just the way he behaves; it’s somewhat unpredictable. But some of it, we think, is exploring: you know, “What are my options? Where could I go? What could I do?” And we would encourage that.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the situation, we’re joined by Asli Bali. Professor Bali teaches international law at the UCLA School of Law. She has written and commented extensively on the question of international intervention in Libya. And we’re joined by Khaled Mattawa in Ann Arbor. He’s an acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar and associate professor at the University of Michigan.

Professor Mattawa, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about your reasons why you feel intervention is important?

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, the first immediate reaction that the intervention had taken was to save the city of Benghazi. On the one day after the U.N. resolution had passed, Saturday, Gaddafi went into Benghazi and killed approximately 95 people and injured maybe twice or three times as that many people. Clearly, he is going to subdue these towns with bullets and fire. He is doing the same thing in Misurata. He’s doing the same — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just lost Khaled Mattawa at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. We’re going to try to get that satellite back. But let us turn to Professor Asli Bali. You are against intervention. Tell us why.

ASLI BALI: I would not say that I’m against intervention; I’m against or I am critical of the current intervention. So, I’m not categorically against intervention, and equally, I think that there were alternative forms of intervention that might have been pursued that were not explored initially. So, I think the binary choice that we face, which is do nothing or engage in this kind of an extensive use of force with a relatively open-ended authorization through the Security Council, is a false framing. I think that there were alternatives available, both prior to the decision to engage in the ICC referral in the first Security Council resolution and prior to the decision to authorize use of force in the second Security Council resolution, that might have been better alternatives, particularly if the goal is to end the killing of civilians, which I think should be the overwhelming goal of any attempted intervention of any form. So —

AMY GOODMAN: What are the alternatives?

ASLI BALI: For example, the International Crisis Group suggested, just on the eve of the decision of the second Council resolution, that there should have been a vigorous attempt to pursue a political solution, meaning demand an immediate ceasefire from the Gaddafi regime, but initiate negotiations —- basically, make it possible for, A, peacekeepers to be put in on the ground, which would actually produce a buffer between regime forces and the civilian population, which is how you prevent civilians from being killed. It’s very difficult, as we’re seeing now, to militarily decisively either alter the balance on the ground or prevent civilians from being killed from the air. But if you had a buffer on the ground through, for example, a peacekeeping force of regional peacekeepers, that might have been an alternative. So, one thing -—

AMY GOODMAN: And how would those peacekeepers move in?

ASLI BALI: Well, the International Crisis Group’s proposal was that you initiate, as I said, a vigorous political engagement, which demands an immediate ceasefire, backed by a threat to pursue use of force authorization should that ceasefire not materialize, and then you negotiate the terms on which a peacekeeping force is allowed in to the eastern provinces, probably through Egypt, with the cooperation — it would have required, for example, the support of the Arab League and the African Union, both of whom might have been willing to provide that support. There was indication at that point — so we’re talking about two, three days before the Security Council decided to authorize use of force — there was indication that both the African Union and the Arab League were very concerned about the situation and desirous that something be done — something, again, that would focus on ending the killing of civilians.

So, you seek to negotiate a ceasefire, you seek to negotiate terms on which peacekeepers can come in in order to produce a buffer, and then you create a political framework for negotiation between opposition forces and the regime in Libya in order to initiate a peaceful transition. So, the idea being, explore alternatives that make it possible to end the killing of civilians immediately and do no additional harm to civilians. I think that’s really the key for any intervention: does it meet the test of “do no harm.”

But that’s just one of many different proposals that were on the table. The key here is, what were the alternatives between the two ends of the spectrum that we are constantly told is the only framing — namely, do nothing or do what’s in fact being pursued now? The idea that these alternatives were not seriously engaged or debated is, I think, really problematic.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Asli Bali. She teaches international law at UCLA School of Law. We are going to break. Then we’ll come back to this debate about intervention in Libya. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests for this discussion about intervention are Khaled Mattawa, who is a professor at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, acclaimed Libyan poet and scholar, and Asli Bali, who teaches international law at the UCLA School of Law.

Khaled Mattawa, your feelings about why intervention is important right now?

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, let me respond to what the professor was saying. One is the issue of a ceasefire. I agree that that should have been insisted upon earlier, but — and with a U.N. mandate behind it. I mean, Mr. Obama had said Gaddafi must go, he must stop killing civilians, but there wasn’t any sort of diplomatic effort to enforce that. That’s one thing. It should have been done earlier. There are lots of “should have beens” in this case, but this is one of them.

But what we saw clearly, that Gaddafi was not going to respect a ceasefire, and what his plan was, before the U.N. forces or the international forces acted, was that he wanted to conquer Benghazi, conquer as much of the country, place facts on the ground that would be contrary to any attempt by the international community to intervene. And until this point, he has not respected the ceasefire. So that really does not count very much.

Two things that are being talked about — and the professor knows this probably better than most — is that the African Union is pretty much a Muammar Gaddafi organization. Yes, they have had not bent to his will all the time, but clearly a lot of these countries are — have made — are indebted to him. And I’m kind of suspicious of how they would act, even though there had been some interest among them and some African Union countries have voted for the resolution. But the African Union, to insist upon it as if it’s an organization with any teeth or that it has a lot of moral weight behind it, is really a questionable thing.

With the Arab League — Arab League has also been quite active, but again, the Arab countries, many of them, are undergoing the same difficulties that Gaddafi is going through. The Arab regimes are. And as we saw from Bahrain and Yemen, both of these regimes had learned or had dealt with the crisis, taking their cue from Gaddafi. They had started dealing with their crisis much more peacefully, and when they saw Gaddafi’s solution, that you could — you just kill the protesters, and that worked, and in many ways, that worked in rolling back the protest in Tripoli, then they went through the same approach. So, basically, the Arab countries are under the same situation. And a lot of them may not favor intervention just because of the issue of national sovereignty and internal affairs.

But in this situation in Libya, we saw a government that is willing to kill civilians, that is not going to stop this at any calls for reasonable action. And finally, the reprisals that would have come out after the Gaddafi regime would have controlled the country, all of these were circumstances that we, the world, I’m glad, decided to not wait and see. So, that’s the issue of why an intervention was legitimate, considering how late the process had been and how reluctant, which is a good thing. I think it was very good that the United States and the European Union were reluctant to engage. That, to me, is a good sign.

Now, as to peacekeepers becoming involved at this point, I think that would be a good thing. You know, if we can have somehow to force Gaddafi to release the thousands of people he has detained in Tripoli, many of whom are being tortured as we speak, any of those contributions to loosening Gaddafi’s grip on the population and actually letting this transformation occur peacefully, that would be a good addition to the process. But at this point, I think what is being done in breaking down the Gaddafi’s military capabilities is very good. I say this as a Libyan. And as I see these bombardments happening, I see my country’s money being burned. And I’m very concerned about the loss of resources. And as far as I know, the loss of lives has been basically focused on those who are in Gaddafi’s military. So that’s unfortunate, too. A lot of these people have really maybe not have decided to join his military cause with much of their own decision making involved. But Gaddafi is a monster. He really needs to be — his regime needs to crumble.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that is the point?

KHALED MATTAWA: And I think the outcome for Libyans —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa?

KHALED MATTAWA: —- is going to better -—

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa?

KHALED MATTAWA: — when he does.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa, do you believe that’s the goal of this intervention, the regime change, the toppling of Gaddafi?

KHALED MATTAWA: Well, what is the alternative? I think it is a reluctant decision, but what is the alternative? Is the alternative to maintain Muammar Gaddafi in power? What is going to come after Muammar Gaddafi? You saw that really what was — the way he is running the country now, it is him, his two of his sons or three sons running the country, and one or two or three aides that are speaking to the press. And that’s it. We don’t really have a state. Where is the prime minister? Where are the —- where is the cabinet? Where is the state’s structures that he supposedly had in place? Why aren’t they rising to speak on his behalf? My understanding is that his cabinet are under house arrest, and some of them are kept near him in Bab al-Aziziya. This guy does not have a state anymore. And yes -—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to President —

KHALED MATTAWA: — he might be able to resuscitate it again,

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to what President —

KHALED MATTAWA: — but this is done. It’s finished.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to what President Obama said, what he told reporters yesterday, saying that humanitarian concerns are not the only factor driving U.S. intervention there.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Not only do we have a humanitarian interest, but we also have a very practical interest in making sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion. And when we can have some impact on that, with a relatively modest contribution, as part of a broader international effort, then I absolutely believe that the costs are outweighed by the benefits. And that is what drove my decision.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama. And Asli Bali, I’d like you to respond to that, as well as what the New York Times described as “the tension and confusion [laying] bare the unwieldiness of the coalition — which American officials conceded had been put together on the fly.”

“’This is complicated,’ Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said to reporters with him in Moscow.” He said, “This command-and-control business is complicated. We haven’t done something like this, kind of on the fly before. So it’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.”

ASLI BALI: Yeah. I think that basically the way to think about the authorization that the Security Council engaged in is that a decision was taken as to a tactic to be employed here — namely, use of force with a relatively open-ended mandate from the skies — without a clear strategy and certainly without any consensus as to what that strategy is going to be. So, as Professor Mattawa just suggested, for some people, the strategy here is regime change. There’s no alternative, as he suggested. For others, it’s pushing Gaddafi’s forces back to some more acceptable line outside of the eastern provinces and then imposing perhaps a ceasefire. At that point, all bets are basically off, from what I can gather. It doesn’t seem as if there’s much thinking beyond this. So, either, on the one hand, you exceed what the Security Council has authorized by pursuing regime change, or you pursue what the Security Council has authorized — namely, a ceasefire — and you risk potentially freezing a situation on the ground that results in some form of partition.

I think these are the kinds of criticisms that are really worth engaging in thinking about this particular intervention. The question shouldn’t be, should there have been some intervention to end the killing of civilians? I think we can all agree that the killing of civilians is deeply problematic. The question is, what is a constructive way to stop that from happening? Aerial bombardment risks ongoing civilian casualties. So there’s a whole host of ways in which to think about this no-fly zone or no-drive zone, or however you think about the use of force that’s been authorized from the skies. Connecting that to the goal of ending the killing of civilians is, I think, difficult to manage.

You know, one thing that commentators have pointed out — and I think this is right — is, when you have readily mobilized air resources, then that appears to be the solution to many kinds of problems. In other words, if you have a big hammer, everything looks like a nail. But in this instance, having committed to this particular tactic, I think what we’re seeing now is the absence of a clear strategy. I think it’s encouraging that Secretary of State Clinton suggested that there are negotiations, potentially back channels, taking place to have the Gaddafi regime exit in some negotiated transition out into exile. That would be, I think, an ideal outcome from all perspectives, in terms of a rapid transition to a post-Gaddafi scenario that doesn’t involve more shedding of blood.

There were many ways to get to that scenario that would not have entailed even the first Security Council authorization, since, for example, the ICC referral, the referral to the International Criminal Court, is counterproductive insofar as it says to the regime that you’re going to face a form of international accountability that disincentivizes exile, that disincentivizes the regime from leaving rapidly. So, from the outset, I feel as if the Security Council’s interventions in this instance have been, I think, poorly framed if the goal here has been rapid transition to a post-Gaddafi scenario with sparing of the civilian population, of killing.

One more thing I just wanted to add on President Obama’s comments, since you asked. He notes that one thing that we’re pursuing here beyond humanitarian considerations is some degree of international and American leadership in the context of the Arab democratic uprisings. And while I think it’s certainly important to support those uprisings, I think there are a number of other motivations that one needs to consider in putting on the table. For one thing, I would challenge Professor Mattawa’s assessment that the situation in Libya has a causal relationship to the decision to use force in Yemen or Bahrain. Those outcomes are taking place simultaneously, and we have, for the most part, the same coalition of forces that are prepared to intervene in the Libyan case are more or less supporting both the Bahraini and the Yemeni regimes’ strategies. And I think that’s a very troubling intervention of its own in the course of Arab democratic uprisings.

In addition, I think that there were considerations in the Libyan case: the isolation of the regime, the fact that it represents a relatively weak military force with very few allies in the region, the fact that it borders on the Mediterranean and gives rise to the possibility of major migration flows to Europe, should there be a long protracted conflict there, and that it sits atop energy sources that would destabilize energy markets. I mean, I think these are all important considerations that, frankly, we have to concede are among the motivations. That’s not to say that any intervention is bad because of mixed motivations; that’s not the argument. But one has to be clear-eyed about why it is that this coalition has been willing to proceed in this instance and is not, on the other hand, prepared to intervene, let alone forcefully, in any way, really, politically, with response to the repression that we’re seeing in Bahrain and Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Khaled Mattawa, a lot there to respond to, and add to that what Professor Chomsky has just said: “It is also a civil war, and intervening in a civil war is complicated business.” Chomsky said, “We may not like it, but there is support for Gaddafi,” and warned that direct military intervention in Libya will turn out to be a serious mistake.

KHALED MATTAWA: There is some support for Gaddafi. The problem is that the supporters of Gaddafi, who, in political sentiment, may amount to up to 15 percent of the population, are also — a great number of them are involved in the — in the current killings. And so, you can have a heavily armed minority that is engaged in killing and say that that’s a support for Gaddafi. I think that support for Gaddafi is very problematic and should not be given a lot of weight, particularly if these people, a large percentage of them, are engaged in killing. The challenge is if Gaddafi were ever willing to have a national question or a debate about his legitimacy. He would never allow this. He would lose by a wide margin. Any form of dissent of Libya would not be allowed. So, Gaddafi’s popularity is small, but is also a number — a large number of it is engaged in suppressing the majority of the population. So that discounts Mr. Chomsky’s claim.

Now, as far as the whole situation, it is complicated. It is not going to be an easy solution. I understand that. There is the process of state building that needs to begin. It needs to get really started. It’s begun on the east, and it needs to be supported with much more acceptance and legitimization of the Transitional National Council. The support of other parts of the western part of Libya, the regions that had been crushed — Zawiyah, Zuwarah, Zintan, all of these regions — that’s very important. I mean, you have to remember that Tripoli itself came out against Gaddafi and was sniped to death. And so, the support of the change is there. And a regime change to support that process, I think, would also be a good thing for the region, in the sense that what are the Gaddafi’s reactions to all of this? He will very likely be a destabilizing force on Egypt and Tunisia. The whole issue of a humanitarian crisis, which had begun and loomed in the beginning, first few weeks, would begin again, and can be enticed. I mean, the idea of African migrants being brought into Libya and unleashed on Europe, that’s something that Gaddafi talked about openly. So, the world will be involved longer than it had imagined.

There were missteps, I agree. I think letting an out for Gaddafi early on would have been a smart move. The Transitional National Council in Benghazi had also basically stated to him more than once that if he were to leave, they would not pursue him. So, that’s still an option. But Gaddafi doesn’t think this way. And I think it’s very important. You know, the first reaction he had to the crisis was to send one of his sons to beat up the people of Benghazi. And when things came to Tripoli, he brought his second son to threaten the population by killing it. And he said, “It’s ours. Libya is ours.” This is the mindset of the dictator. And when they say “ours,” they mean theirs, meaning this family that’s been brutalizing Libyan people for a long time. So, creativity is called upon and will be called upon again.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa, talk about —

KHALED MATTAWA: Agreed. And that all options —

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa?

KHALED MATTAWA: —- should be on the table in terms of -—

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa, can you talk —

KHALED MATTAWA: — helping establish a different Libya. But also, if the option of this transition can take place with less violence, namely that al-Gaddafi can somehow agree to remove himself, I think that would be great. I think the Libyans are not really interested in increasing the violence. And as much as there is a call for vengeance against Gaddafi, most people would be relieved if he were to just relinquish power and reside somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mattawa —

KHALED MATTAWA: In peace, which I doubt he will ever allow to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: — do you think the Western powers should intervene in Bahrain and Yemen, as well? Do you think the NATO forces should just sort of move across northern Africa and the Middle East?

KHALED MATTAWA: No, I don’t think so. Well, you just heard what the President of Yemen just said: he is willing to resign at the end of the year. And that is something that is new. It took a lot of popular protest to do this. What — the impact of the Libyan situation was this, and I will repeat this point, was that, for a moment of time or for a few days, it worked for Libya to kill civilians and to subdue the violence. Now, that’s what Ali Saleh may have thought, and the King of Bahrain also was probably thinking along those lines. But a lot had happened in Yemen to lead to this point, and a lot will likely to happen in Yemen to actually bring Ali Saleh down — namely, the resignations of the cabinet. This happened in peace in Yemen. And as far as I know, these people have not been killed, who resigned. In Libya, it would not have been allowed to happen. In Bahrain, the discussion about a constitutional monarchy has been there, is part of the discussion. I think that may be something that the U.S. can still pressure the Bahraini king to do. Of course, Saudi Arabia is the real power broker there, more than the United States. But I think there is still much more room to make to force Yemen and Bahrain to change, either for the President to step down faster and for the King to bring about a constitutional monarchy, where the majority Shiites can actually be the majority.

AMY GOODMAN: Asli Bali, we give you the last word.

KHALED MATTAWA: And I think that these are acceptable situations…

AMY GOODMAN: Your comments right now on — as we have to wrap up and go to our next segment, your comments on what you see is going to happen?

ASLI BALI: I just think it’s important to remember, again, slightly in contrast to what Professor Mattawa said, that there are civilians in all parts of Libya, clearly. There are civilians in the west, there are civilians in the east. We’re seeing —

AMY GOODMAN: Are we going to see a partition of the country?

ASLI BALI: — a massive bombing campaign, which could yield civilian casualties, and I think that would be very divisive. I don’t know — if the strategy continues that we’re seeing now, and we do in fact continue the no-fly zone and insist on a ceasefire line, which is what the Security Council authorizes, the resolution authorizes, it’s hard to know what other result would come other than a partition at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would that mean?

ASLI BALI: Well, that’s a very open-ended question. I mean, that’s precisely the thing around which there is no strategy at this point that I can identify. Doesn’t appear to be any consensus around either partition or regime change among the allies that are undertaking this action.

AMY GOODMAN: Khaled Mattawa, we just have a minute, but let me ask you this two-part question. One is, what would partition of Libya mean? And two is, who is this provisional government that has been set up yesterday? The–Mahmoud Jibril heading up the new government as an interim prime minister, as a kind of interim government. Opposition spokesperson Nisan Gouriani telling Al Jazeera, “The provisional national council is a legislative body, but we need an executive body to take control and provide an administration.” First, the division of the country, then the new — what is this resistance government? And we only have a minute.

KHALED MATTAWA: The division of the country is unfortunate. Everyone, from day one, in Tripoli, in Benghazi, all wanted to maintain a united Libya. The division of the country, if it does happen, I hope it will be temporary. And it will be the cause of the Libyan leadership that’s now in the east and the vast population in the west to reunite the country. It will be unfortunate, but that’s exactly what Gaddafi is counting on. Right now, Gaddafi is telling the people of the West that it’s an eastern conspiracy and so forth. So Gaddafi wants this division because it will give him a part of the country. The rest of the Libyan population does not wish it, and I’m sure the Transitional National Council does not wish it and wants to reunite the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And who is Mahmoud Jibril?

KHALED MATTAWA: So, that’s —

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Mahmoud Jibril?

KHALED MATTAWA: I hope it is temporary.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds.

KHALED MATTAWA: I don’t know what it will mean for the country exactly, if it were to be divided. What we will have, we will have, I think, perhaps time to actually begin to contemplate the future of the country without Gaddafi, in some peace, eventually expecting that Gaddafi would implode, his regime would implode, and we will have a united country. But the desire for unity is great all over Libya. And Gaddafi is hoping to maintain a zone from which he could cause trouble on the liberated areas.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Khaled Mattawa, acclaimed Libyan poet, scholar, professor at University of Michigan, speaking to us from Ann Arbor, and Asli Bali, teaching international law at UCLA School of law. I’m glad to have you in New York for this day.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a young man, an American, a Libyan American, joins with the resistance. His family knows he’s been shot, but they don’t know if he’s been killed. Is he dead or missing? We’ll hear from him directly, two days before he was shot, and then we’ll talk to his mother in Washington. Stay with us.

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