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Divided Libya Looks 'Increasingly Likely'

As anti-aircraft fire rang out across Tripoli for the third night in a row and US airstrikes yet to slow, one analyst told CNBC that there is a very real chance of Libya being divided between the Gaddafi-controlled West and rebel-controlled East.

A Libyan jet bomber crashes after being shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as Libya's rebel stronghold came under attack, with at least two air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sending thick smoke into the sky.
Patrick Baz |AFP | Getty Images
A Libyan jet bomber crashes after being shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as Libya's rebel stronghold came under attack, with at least two air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sending thick smoke into the sky.

"With the US looking to step back from leading the operation in the coming days and a reduction in attacks expected as more nations begin patrolling the no-fly zone, the risk of a de facto temporarily-divided Libya is high," said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Janes in London.

Some in the Arab league voiced concern that the imposition of the no-fly zone has led to attacks on air defenses that could hit Libyan civilians and Hartwell said this is why the US is so keen not to be seen as leading the operation.

"This criticism has highlighted the key US concern not to be seen as dominating the military offensive," he said. "For this reason, Washington wants other states to quickly join the military effort."

"As yet, Italian, Canadian, Danish and Norwegian aircraft have yet to participate, and perhaps most crucially, the US will want Qatari Mirage 2000s to begin patrolling Libyan airspace, a move that will give concrete expression to Arab support for the operation," Hartwell said.

The problem of this approach, according to Hartwell, is the risk that no-one takes charge which could create problems.

"Currently, coalition command and control appears haphazard and ill-defined, with a number countries claiming leadership of different aspects of the operation," he said.

President Obama made it clear the US will step back from operational control in a speech from Chile last night saying: "(w)e anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks."

"There will be a desire to keep the number of civilian casualties down at the same time as avoiding any sense of ‘mission creep,’ whereby operations move from the mere policing of a no-fly zone to regime change," Hartwell said.

"Libya and Gaddafi have remained defiant in the face of this assault. Ceasefires have been announced and apparently broken, but the regime is clearly hoping to play on Western fears of a divided Libya that may become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda."

Middle East Turmoil
Middle East Turmoil

"With other states set to join the no-fly zone in the coming days and the initial attacks set to reduce, the pressure and divisions inside and outside the coalition should decrease, although unease will likely endure about the efficacy of the operation," he said.

"In the absence of either a concerted opposition offensive against Gaddafi’s forces or an uprising in the west, at least a temporary a division of Libya between east and west is looking increasingly likely," Hartwell said.

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