WASHINGTON — The bloody battle for control of Libya, where leader Moammar Gadhafi has turned his military forces loose on civilians, slaughtering hundreds if not thousands, could have repercussions far beyond the isolated North African nation.
The collapse of Gadhafi's iron-fisted regime after 42 years, which seemed possible Monday, could spur similar revolts across North African and Arab lands that so far have remained relatively unscathed by anti-government fever sweeping the region, experts said.
"If it can be done here, it can be done anywhere in the Arab world," said Ronald Bruce St John, who's studied Libya for 30 years and authored numerous books on the country. Ten days ago, he said, he wouldn't have believed that popular anger might oust Gadhafi.
But if Gadhafi holds on, St John said, nearby regimes will draw the lesson that "you want to jump on hard with two feet" and brutally crush dissent before it spreads.
Isolated for decades under Gadhafi's bizarre leadership and thinly populated outside major coastal cities, Libya has no strong strategic ties to the U.S. After decades of tension over Gadhafi's support of terrorism, the two countries only re-established full diplomatic ties in 2006, after Libya voluntarily abandoned attempts to build nuclear arms.
Although U.S. oil firms developed Libya's oil fields in the 1960s, the U.S. imports less than 1 percent of its oil needs from the country.
But Libya is a major oil and gas exporter to Europe — in particular to Italy, its former colonial overlord. A number of firms resumed or initiated roles in Libya's growing petroleum industry after the United Nations and U.S. lifted more than a decade of economic sanctions in 2003 and 2004.
Many of those firms, including Italy's Eni, the largest foreign operator in Libya, and BP, said Monday that they're evacuating their employees from the country.
Libya holds the eighth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. And access to those supplies was part of the Bush and Obama administration's strategy of diversifying energy sources beyond the volatile Persian Gulf.
The turmoil in Libya sent oil prices surging over $5 to close at $91.42 Monday, with futures contracts soaring as high as $108.
Under Gadhafi, Libya has played an unpredictable role in world affairs, from sponsoring the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, to Gadhafi's dreams of a pan-African union under Tripoli's sponsorship.
If the regime falls, the world will be a more predictable place, but "Libya will be a more unpredictable place without an approved set of principles to run the country," said Jon B. Alterman, who heads the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Of the five North African nations that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, two — Egypt and Tunisia — have seen their autocratic leaders ousted in recent weeks. Libya is in upheaval. That leaves Algeria, where new protests were reported Monday against long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and Morocco, a monarchy.
What a post-Gadhafi Libya would look like is anyone's guess, since he, his family and a handful of advisers have ruled with an iron fist, even as they claimed the country is a democracy run solely by the people. Libyan embassies abroad are even known as "People's Bureaus."
"It'll take some time to come up with an alternative to Gadhafi. Because Gadhafi has made it impossible to come up with an alternative," Alterman said.
Outside major cities such as Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya remains a deeply tribal, conservative country. News that two major tribes, including one that had been closely allied with the regime, have aligned with the opposition spells trouble for Gadhafi and his family.
"You're probably going to have to build a political structure from the ground up," agreed St John. Gadhafi "systematically destroyed any civil society as we know it in the West," he said.
The country, only unified by the Italians in the 1930s, has long been riven by political tensions between the old provinces of Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east. There have been revolts in the east before, but this is the first in recent memory that spread to Tripoli, the capital.
"As Tripoli goes, I think Libya goes," St John said.
And if Gadhafi goes, the change is likely to be even more sweeping than in neighboring countries that have ousted their leaders. "Libya's a very different animal than Tunisia or Egypt," he said.
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