Abdel Bari Atwan As US and British cruise missiles began to bombard Tripoli and other Libyan cities on Saturday it was impossible not to think back to 1991 and the first offensive against Saddam Hussain. With the ongoing suffering of the Iraqi people in mind, then, I approach this new Western intervention, 'Operation Odyssey Dawn', with misgivings. It is true that the international community cannot stand by and watch Colonel Muammar Gaddafi slaughter his own people, but one cannot help but question the selective involvement of the West in the so-called 'Arab Spring' series of uprisings. On Thursday, as we waited for news from the UN, at least 40 protesters were shot dead in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Yemen, of course, does not benefit from the huge amounts of oil Libya controls. After weeks of indecision, the US supported the UN resolution 1973. The Obama administration wisely insisted on a high level of Arab and Muslim involvement and at first the signs were good: the Arab League endorsed the move last week, and five member states seemed likely to participate. In any case, the main players are Western powers - France, Italy and Canada have already joined the offensive - and the scene is set for a lengthy confrontation. Gaddafi is already presenting this as a Muslim battle against the 'Crusaders', which will garner him some support on the Arab street and among the Islamists. Surely well-targeted diplomatic pressure could have recruited more Arab involvement. Egypt in particular benefits from $1.3 billion US military aid a year and both its armed forces and command structure are intact post-revolution. Gaddafi should not be underestimated: he is a master strategist. His response to the UN resolution 1973 on Thursday was to announce an immediate ceasefire, wrong-footing the coalition whose leaders took a leisurely trip to Paris to talk things over, giving Gaddafi a window of opportunity to move his tanks and artillery close enough to attack Benghazi. Gaddafi will also find ways of re-packaging the situation for propaganda purposes. Unlike the peaceful, unarmed uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the situation in Libya deteriorated into an armed conflict on the second day. Gaddafi could - legitimately - question whether those the UN is seeking to protect can be classed 'civilians' when they are engaged in battle. He might suggest instead that the West is taking sides in what is, effectively, a civil war. Furthermore - a question that has been largely overlooked to date - nobody seems to know what exactly the political background and agenda of the rebels is. We shouldn't forget that Gaddafi himself came to power by revolution. When the dust has settled, Libya may well end up divided into the rebel-held East and a regime stronghold in the rest of the country, which would include the oil fields and the oil terminal town of Brega. There is a strong risk that Libya will become a fifth failed state in the region - joining Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia - and that ushers in another peril. Anyway, there is no guarantee that this intervention will result in the demise of Gaddafi. In 1992, the UN imposed two no-fly zones in Iraq - to protect the Kurds in the North and the Shiites in the South. Saddam remained in power for a further 11 years and was only toppled, as a result of the full-scale invasion of the country. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the coalition does not seem to have a game plan with a middle and an end - only a ballistic, gung-ho beginning. There is a real possibility that 'Operation Odyssey Dawn' will lead to another benighted, long-term war of attrition. To date, over a million civilians have lost their lives in Iraq, as a result of the expanded conflict. The international community has a duty to ensure that this sorry history is not repeated in Libya. n Gulf News