- Article history
In interviews with senior Whitehall figures and five ministers the Guardian has established that the National Transitional Council assured Britain that sleeper cells were ready to rise up in Tripoli once rebel troops entered the capital. Defence sources say Britain provided logistical support to the rebels in the capital, as well as in the Nafusa mountains, including a bombing campaign that cleared the way for the rebels to come down from mountains towards Tripoli.
Britain also took the lead in pressing, in the early summer, for the military campaign to be used to put pressure on Gaddafi from the west of Libya. The French, who had led the way in pressing for a no-fly zone in February after Gaddafi besieged the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, believed that Gaddafi could be overthrown from the east. Liam Fox, the defence secretary, describes the shift, supported by the chief of the defence staff, Sir David Richards, as "a tilt to the west".
Gaddafi told Britain in secret messages sent to the Foreign Office that he was willing to start a political process that would end with the Libyan leader becoming a head of state like the Queen.
In a sign of his erratic and desperate negotiating strategy, which persuaded ministers that Gaddafi would eventually be overthrown, the Libyan leader indicated not just that he had been in power as long as the Queen , but that he was prepared to become a figurehead in the same way as her. "It would be like the Queen of England, is how they thought of it," one minister said. "He would be a non-powerful president, not even in power. They would go as far as he would be a figurehead. But this was not on for the rebels, of course." The Guardian investigation has also established that:
• David Cameron overrode scepticism in his cabinet when he took one of the biggest gambles of his premiership in March to press for a UN security council resolution to authorise military force to protect civilians. Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary who was described by one cabinet minister as the "biggest dove", thought that partition was the "logical thing".
• MI6 was privately sceptical of military action, arguing "it is better to stick with the devil you know".
• The world was "48 hours from watching a humanitarian disaster unfold" in Benghazi before to the US, French and UK air strikes, according to Fox. Cameron did not want to allow another Srebrenica – the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Bosnia in 1995 – on his "watch". Friends say he feared he would be remembered as the "pull up the drawbridge" generation" if he did not act to defend the Arab spring.
• The US, which had initially been sceptical about a no-fly zone, ended up pressing for a tougher UN security council resolution. This led to UN resolution 1973 in March which authorised "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. Fox said: "The Nato operation would have been impossible without the contribution of the Americans."
The offer from Gaddafi to serve as a figurehead, plus intelligence from within Tripoli, was one reason the foreign secretary, William Hague, remained convinced that what he described as his "Anaconda strategy" would squeeze Gaddafi from power. Hague believes Gaddafi overplayed his hand, insisting he would agree only to a political process in the course of which he would retire to the role of state figurehead.
The foreign secretary, who has described the Arab spring as the most important event of the 21st century, warned that there would have been grave consequences if Britain and France had not succeeded in persuading the UN to sanction military action. "If Benghazi had fallen it would have been a huge setback for the Arab spring in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. It would have shown that a dictatorial ruler can successfully fight back and entrench himself again. That would have carried a strong message. [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad now would be feeling in a stronger position and probably getting active assistance from a well-entrenched Gaddafi regime."
Hague added that he was stunned by the success of the high-precision GPS-guided Brimstone missiles after Fox ruled that the collateral damage target – the risks to civilians – should be set at zero. "I saw in Tripoli one of the buildings where they managed to hit the top floor to stop the sniping from the roof without damaging at all the floors underneath. This is the amazing precision of the targeting. Things have really moved on even since the Iraq war. The criterion for targeting was zero civilian casualties and that was rigorously stuck to." Some senior Whitehall officials interviewed by the Guardian confirm that the French and the UK might have taken military action, even if they failed to secure a UN resolution, on the basis of averting a humanitarian disaster. "We would have had to look at the humanitarian necessity option. We would have had to ask the attorney general whether the situation was so grave that we could act."
Andrew Mitchell, the international development secretary, who was briefed by officials on Whitehall's lessons from Iraq as soon as he was asked by Cameron to draw up a stabilisation plan, outlined a five-point plan on how to avoid mistakes from Iraq. It now forms the basis of the National Transitional Council's plans.
Mitchell praised Cameron for ignoring critics who said the military campaign would never work. "David was brave and proved right in the beginning, because he said we cannot allow a massacre to take place in Benghazi. All the soi-disant experts said, you can't do it from the air, the Americans said it was naive - but he stuck to his guns."