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Russia Says Libya Campaign May Backfire by Radicalizing Region

Crowd of Libyan Protesters with FlagApril 5 (Bloomberg) -- Western military efforts to overthrow Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi could backfire and fan extremism across the region, a top Russian defense official said.

"Unfortunately, it's not clear what opposition forces may come to power in the country as a result of these actions," Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said in an e-mailed reply to questions from Bloomberg News.

Russia, with power to veto United Nations Security Council resolutions, abstained from last month's vote that authorized the airstrikes by the U.S. and its allies and enabled rebel forces to halt an offensive by Qaddafi's forces.

Russia last year signed for a $1.8 billion weapons contract with Libya, according to Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Potential civilian contracts may be worth "billions of dollars," Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko said on March 22.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that there was "worrying information" about the presence of al-Qaeda militants among the Libyan rebels.

The U.S., U.K. and their allies have stepped up diplomacy as well as air strikes to avoid a stalemate that might draw NATO members further into the six-week-old conflict. Lacking heavy weapons and training, the rebel forces have been unable to take and hold strategic cities in the center of the country.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said yesterday that arming the rebels to help oust Qaddafi is a "last resort" possibility permitted under the United Nations resolution.

'Call to Crusade'

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month met his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov, who urged an immediate ceasefire in Libya.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin likened the UN resolution and resulting allied offensive to a "medieval call for a crusade." He criticized the U.S for regularly resorting to force in pursuit of its interests, in Libya and before then in Iraq and Serbia.

Russian arms exporters may miss out on as much as $4 billion in profit as a result of the turmoil in the Middle East, Sergei Chemezov, head of Russian Technologies Corp., said on March 3.

Libyans accounted for the second-largest proportion of Islamic insurgents who crossed into Iraq in the year through August 2007 at around 19 percent, behind only the Saudis, who accounted for 41 percent, according to a 2007 report by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

'Fires for Decades'

The conflict in Libya, which began in February as a wave of anti-government protests similar to those that removed rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, escalated into an armed conflict as the country's army split and some soldiers joined the rebels protesting Qaddafi's regime. Western powers intervened to stop what they said were attacks on civilians by Qaddafi's forces.

"Looking at the overall situation in the region, we conclude that stability and predictability has waned there," Antonov said in an email on April 1.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Feb. 22 said that extremism may spread in the Middle East, causing Arab states to "fall to pieces" with ensuing "fires for decades" if fanatics rise to power. Russia, which has 20 million Muslim citizens, or about 15 percent of its population, faces a terrorist threat in its mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

The U.S. armed Islamic fighters known as "Mujahedeen" in Afghanistan in the 1980s as part of Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, which was forced to end its occupation of the central Asian country in 1989. Many of these Islamic extremists later joined al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden fought in Afghanistan.

"The main question is who will come to power" after the current wave of Middle East unrest, Antonov said. "The likelihood of countries opting for a radical way to solve chronic regional problems has risen considerably."

Article ©2011 BLOOMBERG L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED; article first appeared at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-04-05/russia-says-libya-campaign-may-backfire-by-radicalizing-middle-east-region.html

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