By Luke Baker
BRUSSELS, Aug 24 (Reuters) - If there is one pitfall Western officials appear determined to avoid in Libya, it is making the same mistakes that were made in Iraq eight years ago.
It is not so much the way the six-month conflict in Libya has been pursued, with France, Britain and others providing support to the rebels from afar, operating under a NATO banner and with a U.N. mandate, but the thinking and planning of the post-Muammar Gaddafi phase.
Gaddafi, in power for 42 years, has still not left the scene and his whereabouts and that of his sons remains unclear.
But for several weeks, and in coordination with the rebel National Transitional Council -- now recognized by more than 30 countries including the United States and the EU's member states -- detailed planning has been going on over how to administer Libya once Gaddafi and his backers are gone.
In Iraq, the approach taken by the United States after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was haphazard -- asked days after Baghdad had fallen what his plan was, the U.S. administrator, Lieutenant-General Jay Garner, responded: "I'm just going to carry the football downfield and see what happens."
It did not get much better. Paul Bremer, who took over from Garner in May 2003, decided to dissolve the Iraqi army, putting tens of thousands of angry men with guns on the streets, directly contributing to the rise of the insurgency.
He also pursued a vigorous policy of 'de-Baathification', which alienated large portions of the population, from teachers to civil servants, many of whom had been forced to belong to Saddam's Baath party rather than being true believers.
Much of the state-controlled economy imploded after the United States and its allies took over, with government salaries unpaid and contracts halted. Washington had to fly in billions of dollars in cash, transported on C-130 aircraft, in order to finance Iraq's administration and pay workers. Corruption and financial mismanagement quickly took root.
By contrast, the words from the West so far point to a far more thought-out approach toward post-Gaddafi Libya. In part, Libya, with its smaller population and less complex tribal, sectarian and ethic structure, may be easier to handle than Iraq. But the shift also points to lessons having been learnt.
AFTER THE OVERTHROW
Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, spoke about the need to unfreeze assets so that funds can quickly flow back into Libya, about preparations underway to release medicine, fuel and other essentials, and proposals for restimulating the economy.
"This is about making sure that people are paid, civil servants, police officers, whoever, also making sure that there are supplies in the shops and so on, helping to make the economy function," she said.
"The watchwords for us are making sure that we have a coordinated approach and it's coherent," she said of the EU's 27 member states, whose efforts she will oversee.
To try to ensure money is quickly available to the National Transitional Council, France said on Wednesday it was working with allies at the United Nations to put together a draft resolution to unfreeze Libyan assets and unlock sanctions imposed over the past five months to force Gaddafi out.
"The NTC must have the financial resources that were frozen by the U.N. Security Council resolutions," a French diplomatic source said.
Ashton said she had already spoken to Canada's foreign minister about using unfrozen assets to rebuild Libyan infrastructure and about the need to get overseas workers, on whom Libya's greatly depended, back into the country.
"I anticipate that the release of assets back to the Libyan people is going to create a lot of resources on the ground for them," she said, adding that the biggest challenge would be ensuring that the money was transparently distributed.
"Making sure that the interim government has the right checks and balances to ensure that the assets that are returned are dealt with in a transparent way, in a way ensuring that the money goes to where it needs to go: to the people," she said.
The other critical consideration is elections. While the NTC is recognized by three dozen countries, the place it may have to work hardest to gain legitimacy is in Libya itself.
Ashton said she had spoken to Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, and he had asked for help with setting up elections as soon as possible, something that in Iraq did not happen for nearly 18 months after Saddam's overthrow.
"Mr. Jalil was very quick to say that he wanted to see electoral observer missions," she said. "They wanted support as they move toward elections and democracy. They wanted help with the building of political parties."
That may still be some time off. The rebels first have to complete their victory over Gaddafi. But from the West's point of view, the aims appear to be clearer than in 2003.
(Additional reporting by Christopher Le Coq)