MISRATA, Libya, (Reuters) – A day after Libyans declared a “liberation” that consigned Muammar Gaddafi to the “garbage bin of history”, hundreds again filed past his rotting corpse in a grim display that has raised questions about the nation’s new direction.
With their Western allies expressing quiet unease that Gaddafi was battered and shot after his capture on Thursday, then put on show for days in a market cold store, the rebel factions which ended his 42-year rule were still wrangling over the body, amid wider negotiations on dividing up power.
The killing of the 69-year-old in his hometown of Sirte ended a nervous, two-month hiatus since the motley rebel forces of the National Transitional Council overran the capital Tripoli and ended eight months of war – though Gaddafi’s son and heir-apparent Saif al-Islam is still at large.
Yet while the death of the fallen strongman allowed the NTC to trigger mass rejoicing by declaring Libya’s long-awaited “liberation” on Sunday in Benghazi, the seat of the revolt, it has also turned a harsh spotlight on jockeying for power among heavily armed local commanders as negotiations begin in earnest to form an interim government that can run free elections.
In Misrata, Libya’s long-besieged third city whose war leaders are pushing for a big role in the peace, fighters handing out surgical masks against the stench were still ushering hundreds of sightseers into the chill room where the bodies of Gaddafi, his son Mo’tassim and his former army chief lay on the floor, their flesh darkening and leaking fluids.
The Islamic law that NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said during Sunday’s liberation announcement should be upheld in the new Libya would dictate a swift burial within the day.
NTC officials said negotiations were going on with Gaddafi’s tribal kinsmen from Sirte and within the interim leadership over where and how to dispose of the bodies – and on what the Misratans might receive in return for cooperation.
The killings in Sirte, after cellphone video footage was taken showing the captive Gaddafi being beaten and mocked by fighters apparently from Misrata, are also a matter of controversy – at least outside Libya. The United Nations human rights arm has joined the Gaddafi family in seeking an inquiry.
Abdel Jalil told a news conference on Monday that the NTC had formed a committee to investigate. He also indicated that the interim authorities still held to an official line that Gaddafi may have been killed in “crossfire” with his own men – a view many NTC officials themselves seem ready to discount.
“We have formed a committee to investigate how Gaddafi was killed during the clashes with his supporters while arresting him,” Abdel Jalil said, adding that whoever killed him may have had something to hide.
“All Libyans wanted to prosecute him over what he did to them, from executions to imprisonments, corruption, wasting their money. Those who have an interest in killing him before prosecuting him are those who had an active role with him,” said Abdel Jalil, who like many of the new leadership formerly held positions of authority under Gaddafi.
Adding to concerns about Libya turning over a new leaf on respect for individuals, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to probe an “apparent mass execution” of 53 people, apparently Gaddafi supporters, whom it found dead, some with their hands bound, at a hotel in Sirte.
Yet few Libyans seem troubled about either how Gaddafi and his entourage were killed or why they are being kept exposed for so long in what seemed a grim parody of the lying in state often reserved for deceased national leaders.
“God made the pharaoh as an example to the others,” said Salem Shaka, who was viewing the bodies on Monday. “If he had been a good man, we would have buried him.
“But he chose this destiny for himself.”
Another man, who said he had driven 400 km (250 miles) to see the bodies, said: “I came here to make sure with my own eyes … All Libyans must see him.”
The killing of fallen autocrats is far from a novelty – in Europe in living memory, similar fates befell Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1989 and Benito Mussolini, who had created modern Libya as an Italian colony a decade before he died in 1945.
However, some of the anti-Gaddafi rebels’ Western allies have expressed disquiet about the treatment of Gaddafi both after his capture and after his death and worry Libya’s new leaders will not uphold their promise to respect human rights.
Asked whether France, a driving force in NATO backing for the rebels, was concerned about democracy in the new Libya, the French foreign ministry noted that Abdel Jalil had said he would defend a “moderate” Islam:
“We are confident in the Libyan people, who have courageously set themselves free of 42 years of dictatorship, to construct a state of law, conforming to the principles and universal values shared by the international community,” it said in a statement. “We will be vigilant about human rights.”
As their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours whose uprisings inspired Libyans to rebel contemplated free elections, some fellow Arabs voiced distaste at Gaddafi’s treatment, even though sympathy for the fallen strongman was in short supply.
“Forty-two dark years under a merciless dictator has naturally left the Libyan people very damage,” said Mahmoud Nofal, a 36-year-old bank employee in Cairo. “It has driven them mad for revenge. The rotting body is just emblematic of the rotten political and social environment under Gaddafi.”
In Britain, the best-selling Sun tabloid splashed a picture of one of its journalists posing by Gaddafi’s body under the headline “Dead Dog” – a reminder of Ronald Reagan’s description of Gaddafi as the “mad dog of the Middle East” in the 1980s.
The NTC wants the bodies buried in a secret location to prevent the grave becoming a shrine for Gaddafi loyalists. But authorities in Misrata do not want them under their soil.
Gaddafi’s tribe centred around Sirte has asked for the body so they can bury it there. Gaddafi requested to be buried in Sirte in his will. One NTC official said authorities were negotiating with Gaddafi’s tribe for them to accept the bodies and then taken them to buried elsewhere in secret.
An NTC official in Misrata said one option was to inter them alongside hundreds of pro-Gaddafi troops and fighters who besieged the city earlier in the year have been buried. Some in Misrata, he said, wanted the people of Sirte, some 250 km to the east, to produce the remains of relatives believed to have been killed by Gaddafi supporters over the past 30 years.
With big oil and gas reserves, Libya has the potential to become very prosperous, but regional rivalries fostered by Gaddafi could erupt into yet more violence.
The loosely disciplined militias that sprang up in each town with the help of NATO air power are still armed.
The places they represent will want a greater say in the future, particularly the second and third cities Benghazi and Misrata, which were starved of investment by Gaddafi.