The council that has ruled Libya since the ouster of Col. Moammar Gadhafi is deeply fractured and faces a difficult task reuniting and rebuilding the country now that it is in complete control following Gadhafi's death, Libyan officials and international affairs experts said Thursday.
The U.S. and other Western powers recognized the National Transitional Council as Libya's official government earlier this year as it became increasingly clear that anti-Gadhafi rebels were likely to succeed in driving the eccentric colonel from power after 42 years of dictatorial rule.
The head of the council, Mahmoud Jibril — in effect, Libya's prime minister — has said free elections would be held eight months after the last vestiges of Gadhafi's regime had been defeated. That clock started ticking Thursday when in his hometown, Sirte, the last major city to fall to the rebels.
Elections on a rushed timetableThe timeline would put the elections in April — a potentially oppressive deadline in a country that "starts really from zero," said Richard Haass, director of policy planning for the State Department during the administration of President George W. Bush.
"There are no international institutions," said Haass, now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the nonpartisan policy institute in New York that publishes the influential journal Foreign Affairs. "There's not really a functioning political system or an economy."
When the elections are held, they will bring in an entirely new slate of leaders, because Jibril and the rest of the NTC are barred from serving in the next government under its interim constitution. Jibril — a U.S.-trained economist and former professor at the University of Pittsburgh — reinforced that message Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when he said, "I will not be part of the upcoming government."
That lack of continuity will further hamper efforts to "transform this anti-Gadhafi movement into pro-Libya progress," said Marc Ginsberg, a senior foreign policy adviser during the Carter and Clinton administrations.
"There are 41 tribal leaders, all of whom probably want to get their hands" on the country's wealth — billions of dollars in overseas bank accounts and untold riches in oil still in the ground — Ginsberg said.
Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis for Strategic Forecasting, a widely followed international affairs and intelligence company in Austin, Texas, identified the factions as coalescing around two primary forces: the NTC and the Tripoli Military Council, a coalition of rebel forces led by Abdelhakim Belhadj.
Belhadj is the former head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was listed as a terrorist organization after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was detained at a secret prison by the CIA in 2004 before he was returned to Libya.
"We have a very complex landscape that will somehow need to come together," Bokhari said in an analysis issued by Stratfor.
Haass said that until now, the factions had been held together by just one thread: their opposition to Gadhafi.
"Can they agree on what kind of Libya they want to bring about?" he asked. "That will be a real test."
Libyan ambassador asks for U.S. helpAli Aujuli, the Libyan ambassador to the U.S., acknowledged the difficulties ahead, saying, "We need to work hard for reconcilation."
That will require continued assistance from the U.S. and other foreign governments, Aujuli said, because "we still need help (to) establish our democratic institutions; we need help (for) our injuries to be treated. We need them to help us to help the Libyans to be trained to take care of their country."
Vali Nasr, who until earlier this year was the Obama administration's senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, strongly agreed, saying he feared that "the killing of Gadhafi could be some form of closure for the NATO countries, and they could wash their hands of Libya very quickly."
"The NTC that overthrew Gadhafi is highly fractured," said Nasr, who now teaches international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. "It doesn't have very strong central leadership.
"This is a country that literally has to build its political and economic systems from scratch, and that requires a lot of outside support and ongoing support," he said.
In fact, Nasr said, the death of Gadhafi could be irrelevant in the long run, saying, "It remains to be seen whether Libya will actually disintegrate into the same kind of chaos we saw in Iraq or if it is able to claw its way back to stability."
Haass concurred, saying it was far too early to project whether Libya would be able to make the transition to democracy.
Gadhafi's death will be seen as a victory only "if, several years from now, Libya is a viable state in which people enjoy freedom and economic opportunity," he said.
But Michael Leiter, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, told NBC News' Brian Williams that while the death of Gadhafi wasn't the expressed goal of U.S. policy, it was still a welcome development.
"Without Gadhafi gone, there really wasn't going to be progress in Libya, and this was a critical step in that regard," Leiter said.
It's still "going to be hard for Libya," he cautioned, saying that in addition to political and economic challenges, "they've got potentially, still, problems with terrorist organizations in the south of their country."
Aujuli, the NTC's ambassador in Washington, said skepticism greeted the rebels when they started the civil war in February, and "I am very happy to tell the world that Libya did not disappoint you."
"We've been waiting for this moment a very long time, more than 40 years," he said. "We are proud of ourselves. We are proud of our people.
"They open a new chapter with greater dreams for a democratic country, a democratic regime, and (will) enjoy for the first time in 42 years to elect their own leader."
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News and Martin Bashir and Tamron Hall of MSNBC-TV.