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U.S. downplays concerns as Libya’s post-Gadhafi rulers call for Islamic law

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A cell phone photo of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte Oct. 20, 2011. (Philippe Desmazes/Global Post)

The Obama administration and European allies congratulated the Libyan people as Libya's interim rulers declared formal victory in their nine-month struggle against the recently killed strongman Moammer Gadhafi on Sunday.

Still, underneath the surface festivities, it seems that some forces aligned with Libya's interim leaders may be mimicking brutal aspects of the unmourned Gadhafi's repressive style, even as they seek to distance themselves from his legacy.

Investigators with the international human rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch reported Monday that they had discovered the dead bodies of 53 Gadhafi supporters apparently executed with their hands tied behind their backs at an abandoned hotel in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

Meanwhile, Global Post reported that its analysis of video images of Gadhafi taken before his execution last Thursday apparently shows him being sodomized by a member of Libyan National Transition Council forces wielding a weapon.

The allegation came as the bodies of Gadhafi and his son Mo'tassim were put on public display in a cold storage facility for two days in the Libyan city of Misrata.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--who on a visit earlier last week to Libya expressed the wish that Gadhafi be captured or killed--said on the Sunday talk shows that it would be appropriate for Libyan authorities to pursue an investigation of Gadhafi's death.

Libya's interim rulers took up the suggestion on Monday, saying they would proceed with such an investigation, the New York Times reported.

"In response to international calls, we have started to put in place a commission tasked with investigating the circumstances of Muammar Qaddafi's death in the clash with his circle as he was being captured," Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the National Transition Council, told journalists in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi Monday, the Times' Adam Nossiter and Rick Gladstone reported.

But past such pledges--to investigate, for instance, how the Libyan rebels' military commander Abdel Fattah Younes was assassinated in July,  apparently at the hands of one Islamist militant rebel faction--have so far gone nowhere.

In the meantime, Western officials got another stiff reminder Sunday that Libya's victorious rebels plan to steer the country toward greater public observance of Islam.  Libya's interim leader Abdul-Jalil pledged at Sunday's festivities commemorating the successful struggle to topple Gadhafi that Islamic Sharia law would be the basis of the new government.

"We are an Islamic country," Abdul-Jalil told crowds celebrating in Benghazi Sunday, the Times reported. "We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion."

Abdul-Jalil promised that "Islamic banks would be established in the new Libya," the Times' Nossiter and Kareem Fahim reported. "He also talked of lifting restrictions on the number of women Libyan men can marry."

His comments "reflected not only the chairman's personal religious conservatism and the country's, but also the rising influence of Islamists among the former rebels," Nossiter and Fahim wrote. "The Islamists, who include some influential militia commanders, have warned that they will not permit their secular counterparts in a new government to sideline them."

"Any law that violates sharia is null and void legally," Abdul-Jalil said, according to Agence France Press's Simon Martelli, who added that the NTC leader specifically referenced plans to void Gadhafi's former ban on polygamy. "The law of divorce and marriage . . . . This law is contrary to sharia and it is stopped."

Abdul-Jalil's pronouncements are already provoking sharp rebukes from feminists and teir progressive-minded sympathizers  in LIbya. "It's shocking and insulting to state, after thousands of Libyans have paid for freedom with their lives, that the priority of the new leadership is to allow men to marry in secret," a Libyan feminist who gave only her first name Rim told the AFP's Martelli. "We did not slay Goliath so that we now live under the Inquisition."

The specter of Islamist rule is provoking "feelings of pain and bitterness among women who sacrificed so many martyrs," Adelrahman al-Shatr, a Libyan opposition politician, told the AFP. "By abolishing the marriage law, women lose the right to keep the family home if they divorce. It is a disaster for Libyan women."

Former American officials who have worked in the North African nation tend to downplay concerns that Libya's post-Gadhafi rulers plan to institute extreme, Taliban-style restrictions on expression, women's dress code and behavior, stressing that there's a broad range of interpretations of Islamic law. They also contend that Libya which under Gadhafi had made cultural strides toward secular modernity, is not fertile recruiting ground for Islamist extremism.

But Abdul-Jalil's pronouncements Sunday indicate a continuing struggle for influence between Islamist militant and more secular factions of Libya's anti-Gadhafi forces.

And documents found in Gadhafi's seized intelligence ministry in August support previous reporting that showed the CIA was long concerned about al-Qaida links to factions of anti-Gadhafi militants, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Indeed, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a top anti-Gadhafi rebel who has become a leading figure in the post-Gadhafi leadership in Tripoli, told reporters in September that he was arrested in Thailand in 2004, tortured under interrogation by the CIA, before he was rendered back to Gadhafi's Libya. (Belhaj strongly denied any allegiance to al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden.) U.S. officials have also acknowledged concerns about the possibility that Gadhafi's huge stockpile of surface-to-air missiles and other weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, including al Qaida's north African affiliate, al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which has been active in Libya.

In the short term, however, the United States, like much of the rest of the world, is focusing mainly on Libya's achievement in toppling a long-ruling dictator--with the assistance of NATO air-power. "On behalf of the American people, I congratulate the people of Libya on today's historic declaration of liberation," President Obama said in a statement Sunday.  "After four decades of brutal dictatorship and eight months of deadly conflict, the Libyan people can now celebrate their freedom and the beginning of a new era of promise." Libya's transition authorities must now turn "their attention to the political transition ahead," he urged.

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