In February 2011, the unrest sweeping through much of the Arab world had erupted in several Libyan cities. Though it began with a relatively organized core of anti-government opponents in Benghazi, its spread to the capital of Tripoli was swift and spontaneous. Colonel Qaddafi lashed out with extreme violence. Soon, though, an inchoate opposition managed to cobble together the semblance of a transitional government, field a makeshift rebel army and portray itself to the West and Libyans as an alternative to Colonel Qaddafi’s corrupt and repressive rule.
Momentum shifted quickly, however, and the rebels faced the possibility of being outgunned and outnumbered in what increasingly looked like a mismatched civil war. Then as Colonel Qaddafi’s troops advanced to within 100 miles of Benghazi, the rebel stronghold in the west, the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military action, a risky foreign intervention aimed at averting a bloody rout of the rebels by loyalist forces. On March 19, American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against Colonel Qaddafi and his government, unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention on a scale not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.
Prior to the bombing campaign, the Obama administrationintensely debated whether to open the mission with a new kind of warfare: a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system, which threatened allied warplanes. But administration officials and some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own. They were also unable to resolve whether the president had the power to proceed with such an attack without informing Congress. In the end, American officials rejected cyberwarfare and used conventional aircraft, cruise missiles and drones.
By late May, the weeks of NATO bombing seemed to put the momentum back on the side of the rebels, who broke a bloody siege of the western city of Misurata. By August, they were making territorial gains in the country’s east and west. Colonel Qaddafi rejected calls to leave power in spite of defections by subordinates, increased economic and political isolation and NATO air assaults. The rebels themselves suffered from internal dissension and lack of training.
Six months of inconclusive fighting gave way within a matter of days to an assault on Tripoli that unfolded at a breakneck pace. By the night of Aug. 21, rebels surged into the city, meeting only sporadic resistance and setting off raucous street celebrations. Expectations grew that Colonel Qaddafi’s hold on power was crumbling as rebels overran his heavily fortified compound on Aug. 23 and finally established control after days of bloody urban street fighting. The rebels struggled in the days that followed to restore order and services to Tripoli, while the fighting to subdue the last of the Qaddafi stronghold proceeded slowly.
Rifts between tribes and the growing influence of Islamists in Libyaraised hard questions about the ultimate character of the government and society that will rise in place of Qaddafi’s autocracy. The Transitional National Council, which has promised to assemble a new cabinet, has thus far been unable to overcome regional disputes over the composition of the group or to persuade the militias that seized Tripoli to give up their arms.
Oct. 28 The top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague said that he had been in indirect contact with Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the fugitive son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his one-time heir apparent, about turning himself in to face trial before the court.
Oct. 26Libya’s interim leader said that he had asked NATO to prolong its air patrols through December and add military advisers on the ground, citing worries that supporters of Qadaffi might launch attacks from neighboring countries.
Oct. 25After permitting four days of public viewing of the slowly decomposing corpses of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, his son Muatassim and his former defense minister Abu Bakr Younes, the military council in Misurata said that the three were buried early in the day at a secret location.
Oct. 25Libya’s interim leaders appeared to be unwilling or incapable of looking into accusations of atrocities by their fighters, despite repeated pledges not to tolerate abuse. In Surt, volunteers collected dozens of bodies, apparently of people executed only days before, including at least two former Qaddafi government officials. It appeared to be one of the worst massacres of the eight-month conflict, but days after it occurred, no one from Libya’s new government had come to investigate.
Oct. 24 Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the Transitional National Council, announced the creation of a formal committee of inquiry to examine the circumstances surrounding the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi while in the custody of his captors after he fled his final refuge, acknowledging the calls by foreign powers and rights groups — including some that supported the rebellion against Colonel Qaddafi’s rule — for an investigation into how he wound up dead with a bullet to the head.
Oct. 23The leader of the transitional government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, declared to thousands of revelers in a sunlit square that Libya’s revolution had ended, setting the country on the path to elections, and he vowed that the new government would be based on Islamic tenets. The emotional ceremony, hastily improvised three days after the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was intended to put a cap on Libya’s bloody upheaval and mark the beginning of a transition to an elected government within 20 months.
Oct. 20 The head of the Libyan military council said that Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi had been killed as fighters wrested control of his hometown of Surt after a prolonged struggle. Videos circulated on the Internet showing a wounded Colonel Qaddafi surrounded by jubilant rebels before he died. Photos of his corpse showed several bullet wounds to his head as well as wounds to other parts of his body. Wild celebrations broke out across the country.
Oct. 18 Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Tripoli to demonstrate support for Libya’s new transitional government even as a senior administration officials expressed concern that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi remained a “lethal nuisance.” Mrs. Clinton was the highest ranking American official to visit Libya since the collapse of Colonel Qaddafi’s government.
Oct. 18 Just before the American-led strikes against Libya in March 2011, the Obama administration intensely debated whether to open the mission with a cyberoffensive to disrupt and even disable the Qaddafi government’s air-defense system, which threatened allied warplanes, it was disclosed. Administration officials and even some military officers balked, fearing that it might set a precedent for other nations, in particular Russia or China, to carry out such offensives of their own, and questioning whether the attack could be mounted on such short notice.
Oct. 11 The commander of NATO’s air campaign, Lt. Gen. Ralph J. Jodice II of the United States Air Force, said that hundreds of organized fighters loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi posed a“resilient and fierce” threat in the two remaining pro-Qaddafi strongholds, the coastal city of Surt and the desert enclave of Bani Walid, and are exploiting the urban settings to complicate the alliance’s mission to protect civilians.
Oct. 3 Libya’s provisional leaders said that they would resign oncethe former rebels defeat the vestiges of armed support for Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi in his home city of Surt, a move that would clear the way for a new interim government that would run the country until elections can be held. Previously, officials with the council had said they would not declare the conflict to be officially over until the country was completely pacified and Colonel Qaddafi and his top aides were either arrested, killed or confirmed to be out of the country.
Sept. 20 President Obama met Libya’s transitional leader for the first time at the United Nations and extolled what he called the Libyan people’s successful struggle to depose Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Mr. Obama also announced that the United States was reopening its embassy in Tripoli.
Sept. 17 The United Nations moved on two fronts to bolster the nascent Libyan government, with the Security Council lifting some economic sanctions and the General Assembly accepting the credentials of the transitional government to represent Libya in the world body. The move, which was approved unanimously, also established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, a political mission whose main tasks include helping to write a constitution, organizing elections, and offering advice on restoring security and national reconciliation.
Events in Libya: A Chronology For a day by day account of events in Libya between March and the rebel seizure of Tripoli in late August, go to our chronology page.
Colonel Qaddafi took power in a bloodless coup in September 1969 and ruled with an iron fist, seeking to spread Libya’s influence in Africa. He built his rule on a cult of personality and a network of family and tribal alliances supported by largess from Libya’s oil revenues.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Libya in 1972 after Colonel Qaddafi renounced agreements with the West and repeatedly inveighed against the United States in speeches and public statements.
After a mob sacked and burned the American Embassy in 1979, the United States cut off relations. The relationship continued to spiral downward and, in 1986, the Reagan administration accused Libya of ordering the bombing of a German discothèque that killed three people, including two American servicemen. In response, the United States bombed targets in Tripoli and Benghazi.
The most notorious of Libya’s actions was the bombing in 1988 of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Libya later accepted responsibility, turned over suspects and paid families of victims more than $2 billion.
After a surprise decision to renounce terrorism in 2003, Colonel Qaddafi re-established diplomatic and economic ties throughout Europe. He had also changed with regard to Israel. The man who once called for pushing the '‘Zionists’' into the sea advocated the forming of one nation where Jews and Palestinians would live together in peace.
Rather than trying to destabilize his Arab neighbors, he founded a pan-African confederation modeled along the lines of the European Union. On Feb. 2, 2009, Colonel Qaddafi was named chairman of the African Union. His election, however, caused some unease among some of the group’s 53-member nations as well as among diplomats and analysts. The colonel, who had ruled Libya with an iron hand, was a stark change from the succession of recent leaders from democratic countries like Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria.
The most significant changes had been the overtures Colonel Qaddafi made toward the United States. He was among the first Arab leaders to denounce the Sept. 11 attacks, and he lent tacit approval to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. To the astonishment of other Arab leaders, he reportedly shared his intelligence files on Al Qaeda with the United States to aid in the hunt for its international operatives. He also cooperated with the United States and Europe on other terrorism issues, as well as on nuclear weapons and immigration.
In August 2009, Colonel Qaddafi embarrassed the British government and drew criticism from President Obama with his triumphant reaction to the release from prison on compassionate grounds of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Mr. Megrahi was given a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Libya, and Colonel Qaddafi thanked British and Scottish officials for releasing Mr. Megrahi at a time when both governments were trying to distance themselves from the action.
Colonel Qaddafi, born in 1942, is the father of many sons. His eldest,Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, who was educated in Britain, for years served as a bridge between the Libya power centers and the West.
Prior to the 2011 unrest, the only hint of potential change in Libya came from Seif Qaddafi, who spoke of dismantling a legacy of Socialism and authoritarianism introduced by his father 40 years ago. Seif Qaddafi proposed far-reaching ideas: tax-free investment zones, a tax haven for foreigners, the abolition of visa requirements and the development of luxury hotels. He liked to boast that his country could be “the Dubai of North Africa,” pointing to Libya’s proximity to Europe (the flight from London to Tripoli is under three hours), its abundant energy reserves and 1,200 miles of mostly unspoiled Mediterranean coastline.
But the reality of daily life in Tripoli remained far removed from those lofty notions. The streets were strewn with garbage; there were gaping holes in the sidewalks, and tourist-friendly hotels and restaurants were few and far between. And while a number of seaside hotels were being built, the city largely ignored its most spectacular asset, the Mediterranean.
Unemployment is estimated as high as 30 percent and much of the potential work force is insufficiently trained.
Uprising in Libya
In February 2011, protests broke out in several parts of Libya on a so-called Day of Rage to challenge Colonel Qaddafi’s 41-year-old iron rule. Thousands turned out in Benghazi, Tripoli and three other locations, according to Human Rights Watch. The state media, though, showed Libyans waving green flags and shouting in support of Colonel Qaddafi.
Trying to demonstrate that he was still in control, Colonel Qaddafi appeared on television on Feb. 22, 2011, speaking from his residence on the grounds of an army barracks in Tripoli that still showed scars from when the United States bombed it in 1986.
Colonel Qaddafi, who took power in a military coup, had always kept the Libyan military too weak and divided to rebel against him. About half of Libya’s relatively small 50,000-member army was made up of poorly trained and unreliable conscripts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Many of its battalions were organized along tribal lines, ensuring their loyalty to their own clan rather than to top military commanders — a pattern evident in the defection of portions of the army to help protesters take the eastern city of Benghazi.
Distrustful of his own generals, Colonel Qaddafi built up an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that reported primarily to his family. It was designed to check the army and to subdue his own population. At the top of that structure was his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which guarded him personally.
But perhaps the most significant force that Colonel Qaddafi deployed against the insurrection was a group of about 2,500 ruthless mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he called his Islamic Pan African Brigade.