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As Fighting Continues in Tripoli, A Look at Role of the U.S., NATO and Oil Firms in Libya Uprising

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Fighting continues in parts of Tripoli, the capital of Libya, where rebels are reportedly battling with Muammar Gaddafi’s forces outside his heavily fortified compound. Reports by the Libyan Rebel Council that Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, had been captured were contradicted late Monday when he emerged amongst supporters in front of foreign journalists in Tripoli. The International Criminal Court had claimed he had been in the custody of anti-Gaddafi fighters for the past 24 hours. The rebels have also claimed that two of Gaddafi’s other sons were detained but have provided no evidence. Meanwhile, details have emerged that U.S. and NATO forces played a key role in the Libyan rebel push into Tripoli, carrying out 17 Predator drone strikes and 38 air strikes since August 10. Overall, the U.S. has carried out 1,210 air strikes and 101 Predator drone strikes in Libya since April 1. NATO says it will keep up pressure on Gaddafi and that its “mission is not over yet.” We are joined by Phyllis Bennis, who is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we go to broadcast, heavy fighting continues in parts of Tripoli, the capital of Libya, where rebels are reportedly battling with Muammar Gaddafi’s forces outside his heavily fortified compound. Rebel leaders say they do not expect the huge complex to fall easily. Sky News reports many casualties are arriving at a hospital in central Tripoli following the intense fighting. It also says, “In parts of Tripoli, there is reportedly no power, water supplies have been cut and phone lines [are] down.”

Reports by the Libyan Rebel Council that Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, had been captured yesterday were contradicted when he emerged amongst supporters in front of the foreign journalists’ hotel in Tripoli late on Monday. The International Criminal Court had claimed he had been in the custody of anti-Gaddafi fighters for the past 24 hours. This is Saif al-Islam speaking to reporters.

SAIF AL-ISLAM: [translated] Firstly, I want to deny all the rumors. NATO and the West have modern technology, and they have blocked and jammed communications. They sent messages to the Libyan people through the Libyan network, I think. They have stopped the state TV broadcast. They created a media and electronic war to spread chaos and fear in Libya. They have also smuggled saboteur gangs through the sea and civilian cars into the city to create a mess.

You have seen how the Libyan people rose up together, men and women, to break the spine of the rebels, rats and gangs yesterday and today. Now we will have a tour of the hot spots of the city of Tripoli, so you can see that the situation is good and everything is well. We want to reassure the world that the situation in Libya is excellent, thank God. We will go now for a tour in Tripoli in the areas where they claim there is fighting and battles.

REPORTER: [translated] Are you afraid that you’ll be handed over to the criminal court?

SAIF AL-ISLAM: [translated] Screw the criminal court.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, speaking to reporters, disproving reports he had been captured by rebel forces. The rebels have also claimed two of Gaddafi’s other sons were detained but have provided no evidence.

Meanwhile, more details are emerging on how the U.S. and NATO forces played a key role in the Libyan rebel push into Tripoli. Between August 10th and 22nd, the U.S. carried out 17 Predator drone strikes since August 10th, and 38 air strikes. Overall, the U.S. have carried out more than 1,200 air strikes and 101 Predator drone strikes in Libya since April 1st.

Some prominent U.S. analysts are now calling for U.S. ground troops to be sent into Libya to help stabilize the country. As we go to air, a NATO press conference is underway. A spokesperson at NATO will not—said there will not be troops on the ground. Colonel Roland Lavoie, NATO spokesman, said, quote, “We will keep up pressure until there are no more attacks on the civilian population.” He added, “In sum, our mission is not over yet.”

To discuss these developments, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s written a number of books, including Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Phyllis.


Your latest piece at AlterNet is called “Qaddafi’s Whereabouts Unknown—But Is It Too Soon to Declare Victory in Libya?” Explain.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that there’s been a rush to judgment, if you will, that the fact that rebels from the Western Mountains were able to enter Tripoli without too much fighting on the way and to occupy parts of the city, that somehow that meant the fall of the regime. It clearly does not. The fighting is continuing. The dying is continuing. The one thing we knew was that taking Tripoli was going to lead to significant civilian deaths, probably on all sides, as well as military deaths on all sides. So I think that this is a very difficult time in Libya.

And the role of NATO, the U.S., Qatar, the outside forces that have been involved, both directly and indirectly, both funding and training the Libyan opposition, and, on the part of the U.S. and other NATO forces, acting as, as one reporter described it, the air force of the opposition’s army, has reshaped the reality that began in the context of the Arab Spring as an indigenous Libyan uprising against a 42-year dictatorship. Now it’s very unclear whether what is happening is more in the interests of the people of Libya or more in the interests of NATO, the U.S. and other outside powers.

AMY GOODMAN: State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked yesterday what NATO’s future in Libya will be.

VICTORIA NULAND: My sense is that NATO obviously needs to maintain its vigilance, as it has said, until the situation is stable and peaceful and all of Libya is under the TNC and Libyan people’s control, so that job continues. With regard to onward future mission for NATO, I don’t think anybody is envisioning boots on the ground, but I think we need to wait and see. NATO has a long tradition of supporting the U.N., supporting the European Union, other international organizations, in humanitarian relief, other things like that. So, let’s just wait and see what’s needed.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Phyllis Bennis, your response?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that the notion that NATO has to be wary and has to watch is a misnomer. NATO is a player in the civil war in Libya, and it is continuing its role as a major player. I think that what we’re looking at—there are already boots on the ground, not in large numbers. This is not like Iraq. We have to be careful. This is not like Afghanistan. This is not a NATO occupation of Libya, although there are some special forces and training and other things going on on the ground, but not in large numbers. The large military role of NATO, the U.S., Qatar, other countries, is in air power. And air power has been absolutely decisive in recent days in what has made it possible for the rebels to move so quickly into Tripoli.

I think that there—we have to look at the speech, for example, of the Leader of the National Transitional Council, who spoke yesterday at a very celebratory press conference, I think rather prematurely, in which he thanked the international community as a whole for their support but went on to specifically single out the countries that had provided specific support to the TNC and to the opposition in Libya and indicated very directly that they would be given—they would not be forgotten. They would be given, presumably, special privileges in the future, if the TNC, when the TNC, in his view, should take power. The assumption I made was that his reference is to privileged access to oil contracts, privileged access to perhaps bases, to the very strategic location of Libya, that all of that would be made available in a more privileged way to those countries that had played such a direct role in this civil war.

I think that we are in a situation where the TNC has been recognized now by the U.S., by most of the European countries, by 30 different countries, as the legitimate representative of Libya, at a time when it’s not clear how much legitimacy it has inside the country. Some of the rebel fighters from Misurata, for instance, have been very explicit. They told Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent yesterday—they told him directly they do not believe that the TNC represents them. Rebels coming into the mountain—down from the mountains into Tripoli yesterday were reported to be rolling their eyes when asked about the TNC. They don’t believe that it’s their representative. The rebel forces inside Libya—inside Tripoli, sorry—inside Tripoli have not been involved in the TNC, partly for military reality reasons. The military situation has not allowed that. But we also don’t know what their view is inside Tripoli.

What we saw last night, the footage of celebrations on the streets of some parts of Tripoli, were celebrations by the armed rebels who had entered the city coming down from the mountain. They were not the civilian population welcoming in the rebels and celebrating with them in the street. Some of that may have been fear. We know that many civilians inside Tripoli are trying to leave. But the result is, you have a situation where we don’t really know what the population of Tripoli, which amounts to a third the population of the country, what they think. We saw no women on the streets. There were no civilians, no old people, no children celebrating. These were armed rebels with their weapons, holding their weapons above their heads as they celebrated entry into the capital. This is not yet the people of the capital coming out to join them.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times says, “The fighting is not [yet] over in Tripoli, but the scramble to secure access to Libya’s oil wealth has [already] begun.” Oil firms in Libya include BP of Britain, Total of France, Repsol YPF of Spain, U.S. companies like Hess, ConocoPhillips, Marathon. The significance of the oil politics in Libya, Phyllis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think the Times is a little bit late. I think that access to oil contracts was very much a part—it wasn’t the only part, but it was one part—of the reasons that this war went ahead. It wasn’t directly a war for oil, in the sense that the U.S. and European oil companies, all these international companies that you just mentioned, already were in bed with the Gaddafi regime. They were already giving—getting enormous access to Libyan oil. So it wasn’t simply to get access. It was in recognition that there was a change underway.

Again, the Libyan revolutionary process began in the context of the Arab Spring as a whole. And in the early stages, it wasn’t at all clear which side was going to win out. At a certain point, there was a recognition that, as in many other countries, a dictatorship that has little popularity among the population is not likely to survive for long, and so you have these great powers from outside trying to position themselves in a place where they could ensure future access both to oil directly as well as control of things like refugee flows. Many different rationales were involved, especially for Europeans. For the U.S., one of the key rationales was, once European allies were involved in—militarily involvement in Libya, there was an urging by the U.S. to join that, so that they could keep the Europeans on board in Afghanistan. So all of these features were at play.

Now, the question of making sure that in a future—in a future Libya that is assumed, perhaps prematurely, but perhaps will be a post-Gaddafi Libya, they want to position themselves in a way to get continuing access to those oil contracts. It’s not about access to the oil itself. That will be on a global market. It will be part of it. It’s about control. It’s about controlling the terms of those contracts. It’s about controlling amounts that are being pumped at different times. It’s about controlling prices. It’s about controlling that crucial resource.

AMY GOODMAN: Reporting from The Independent, the longtime Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk wrote, “We have spent far too much time honouring the courage of Libyan 'freedom fighters' as they scurried across the desert floor, far too little time examining the nature of the beast, the glutinous Transitional National Council whose supposed leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has still been unable to explain if his own chums connived in the murder of their own army commander last month. Already, the West is offering lessons in democracy to New Libya, indulgently telling its unelected leadership how to avoid the chaos which we ourselves inflicted on the Iraqis when we [quote] 'liberated' them eight years ago. Who will get the backhanders in the new regime—democratic or not—once it is in place?” he asks. Phyllis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: He asks all the right questions. What I was saying earlier, I think, is crucial about the lack of clear support for the TNC from many different sectors in Libya, including important sectors of the revolutionary forces themselves, the opposition forces, the rebels, whatever we want to call them. The anti-Gaddafi forces are themselves incredibly divided. And in that situation, the U.S. and its allies have honed in on one sector of that opposition force, the TNC, the Transitional National Council, and said, “We’re going to anoint you the officials.” And, of course, by doing so, they give them even more power.

There’s now talk of releasing frozen Libyan assets that are in U.S. and European banks, in the billions of dollars, billions of euros. And if that money is immediately released and turned over to this unrepresentative TNC, it’s going to empower them, disempower other forces within the opposition movement, and set the stage for ongoing and very serious chaos, which doesn’t necessarily mean it will look like Iraq. It may or may not take an internal military form. But it’s certainly not something that we can assume will not happen. This is now a highly armed country. Everyone on all sides now is armed. And with that kind of exacerbating features that happens when one faction of a multi-faction movement is adopted by the West, given not only credibility and credentials of the West, but given billions of dollars to determine how to rebuild the country, in whose image, you’re setting the stage for a very difficult, very contentious period, assuming that a post-Gaddafi period is even in the works right now.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s the NATO news conference going on as we broadcast this, and the spokesperson was asked, “What if NATO tracks Gaddafi fleeing by satellite? Would they target him?” He said, “We do not target individuals, and Gaddafi is not a target,” from NATO. They did say, however, “We do target command-and-control facilities. If he is in one of those, those are legitimate targets, we will strike.” Phyllis?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think what they’re referring to is that if they know where Gaddafi is, if he’s in a car, that car will become a command-and-control center, and they will strike that car, knowing who’s in it. I think there’s no question here that there would be that kind of a strike. The notion that the goal would be to capture Gaddafi and bring him to trial, bring him to justice in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, would not be on the agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s also interesting, when asked if they know where he is, they said, “If you know, let me know. We don’t have a clue. I’m not sure it matters. He’s not a key player anymore.”

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, that’s, on the one hand, a bit optimistic. Certainly symbolically, Gaddafi remains a very key player. Whether he’s actually calling the shots in how his forces are conducting the fight inside Tripoli, we certainly don’t know, but he remains a symbolic center. This was very much a one-man operation, expanded only slightly to his family and close allies in Libya. It was a very different situation in that way than, say, Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, to which it’s sometimes compared.

Gaddafi did not create, in his revolutionary process, when he took power in the '60s at the very young age of only 27—he did not create an entirely new system of governing. It was—it was odd. It was something he called “green socialism.” But it was a system that was denied the reality of acknowledging there was a system. There were no real institutions. There was no parliament. There was no voting. Representational democracy was considered inherently flawed. The idea was everybody in the country could vote by raising their hands or something. The result was, Gaddafi never had an official title other than Brother Leader or Colonel sometimes. He wasn't officially the president. There was no presidency. So, the institutions of governance never really existed.

That’s one of the things that is such a challenge and is going to be an even greater challenge in the future for the anti-Gaddafi forces, the opposition forces that are struggling to take power now in Libya, even aside from the problem they will face with the dominance of NATO and other outside military forces. They are facing a situation where you have a country of about six-and-a-half million people with no national structures in place. In that situation, Gaddafi, as the centerpiece, becomes crucially important as a symbol of the nation. He becomes Libya. And so, his role is far from over, despite what NATO may like to believe.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, we want to thank you for being with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. We will link to your articles at Among her books, Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power.

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