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Editorial: A moment to savor in Libya

Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Photo Credit: TMS/Paul Tong

What's happened in Libya is thrilling. The 42-year reign of one of the world's most bizarre and malevolent dictators was brought to an end by a popular rebellion. And while the United States, NATO and Arab allies played a key role in the historic victory, not one American life was lost nor was one boot put on the ground in Libya.

That outcome is a vindication of President Barack Obama's controversial decision to lend air support to the rebels, to prevent the massacre of civilians threatened in the early days of the insurrection. The ultimate objective of the international alliance clearly was the ouster of strongman Moammar Gadhafi. But this was a homegrown rebellion and a bracing extension of the Arab Spring, which has swept away repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and is dramatically changing the Middle East.

Gadhafi's regime, implicated in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 that killed 270 people, is finished. So Libya has reached a critical point in its history and a pivotal point in its insurgency. Ad hoc revolutionaries now have to shift gears from freedom fighting to governing. The Transitional National Council will have to provide security for the nation's 6.6 million people, avoid disruptions in basic services such as water and electricity, and set the nation on course to become an inclusive democracy.

The Libyan people will need help from the United States, other nations and nongovernmental organizations as they seek to establish a new normal after four decades of oppression and six months of fighting. One key question is when, and to whom, the United States will release the $40 billion in Libyan assets frozen in U.S. banks. Another is how quickly Libyan oil fields can be returned to full production and how that oil revenue will be shared with its citizens and used to stabilize the nation.

A couple of early signs of the kind of society the rebels want to create are encouraging. When three of Gadhafi's sons fell into rebel hands in recent days, they weren't summarily executed -- which is too often the way insurgents nursing legitimate grudges deal with key members of a displaced regime. And while Gadhafi was still missing yesterday, there were reports that when he's found, the rebels plan to deliver him to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. That kind of respect for the rule of law will serve the new Libya well.

Despite the obvious euphoria yesterday as the Bab al-Aziziya compound, Gadhafi's last stronghold in Tripoli, fell to the rebels, there's still plenty that could go wrong. Gadhafi loyalists -- many of whom melted away as rebels advanced into the Libyan capital -- could mount a disruptive counter-insurgency, particularly if the victors fail to deliver on promises of justice and reconciliation. The nation could descend into chaos if rebels prove unequal to the job of governing. Islamic extremism could flower. Factional rivalries within rebel ranks could lead to civil war.

Those concerns will take center stage soon enough. But not now. This is the moment to savor what the Libyan people have achieved with strong support, initially from Britain and France, and then the United States. More than 6 million people long oppressed by a cruel dictator are free today. hN