Too many people, including me, have been looking at what's happening in Libya through wariness of the war propaganda on Kosovo in 1999 or Iraq from 2002 on. There is some definite propaganda today. Megrahi’s trial was a sham and no-one actually knows who carried out he Lockerbie bombing ; and Gaddafi has never used chemical weapons against Libyan rebels. Some of what we are hearing from all sides is probably propaganda based on past wars (e.g the 1991 Iraqis throw Kuwaiti babies from incubators lie and the equally false story about the 20 Albanian school-teachers beheaded by Serbs during the Kosovo war (1)).
What's happening in Libya is far more like Iraq at the end of the 1991 war, than Kosovo in 1999 or Iraq in 2003. At the end of the 1991 in Iraq there were rebellions with majority support against the dictatorship, but the dictatorship’s stronger military crushed them because the US and it's allies allowed them to, on the calculation that a successful Shia rebellion would increase Iranian influence in Iraq (2) – (3). Similarly the Obama administration is wary of supporting rebels some of whom, like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), have been allies of Al Qa’ida in the past (4) – (5).
However the rebels are mostly not LIFG. If we don't back them now with arms supplies and air support the likelihood is they will be massacred just like Shia rebels and civilians in the South of Iraq were in 1991. It’s right to be uncertain of recent reports based on past propaganda like the 1991 ‘babies thrown from incubators’story and the 2002-2003 Iraqi WMDs-Al Qa’ida lies; and right to remember the ulterior motives of most governments, but we know from Gaddafi’s past practice that many of those who criticised him, never mind fought against him, will be killed in public hangings or private disappearances if his forces win (6) – (9).
That doesn't mean sending in ground troops - and in fact the rebels say they'd fight them if any were sent, to prevent another Iraq or Afghanistan style occupation. It does mean arming the rebels, providing humanitarian aid to cities and migrant workers and providing air cover.
CORRECTIONS AND UPDATES 14th March :
I've not found any report saying the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group are involved in the current fighting. There are claims from Gaddafi's government that various "Islamic Emirates" groups are involved like the Islamic Emirate of Barqa (10)
Al Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib has said it supports the rebels (though whether it's provided any support beyond words is not known) (11)
There are also some reports that Gaddafi has offered rebel fighters who surrender and hand over their weapons an amnesty (12)
(1) = Phillip Knightley (2000) ‘The First Casualty’ (revised edition), Prion, London, 2000, page 508 of paperback edition
(2) = Galbraith, Peter W. (2006) ‘The End of Iraq’, Pocket Books paperback, 2007, Ch4, especially page 46
(3) = Aburish , Said K (2000) ‘Saddam Hussein - The Politics of Revenge’ Bloomsbury , London , 2000 - 2001 paperback edition, Ch11, especially p308 and footnote 60 p379
(4) = Mark Curtis (2010) ‘Secret Affairs – Britain’s collusion with Radical Islam’, Serpent’s tail books, London, 2010, chapter 13, pages 225-231 of paperback edition
(5) = Al Jazeera 16 Feb 2011 ‘Libyan police stations torched’, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/02/20112167051422444.html ; ‘Meanwhile, a local human rights activist told Reuters news agency that the authorities have decided to release 110 prisoners jailed for membership of banned organisation, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.The prisoners to be freed on Wednesday, are the last members of the group still being held and will be set free from Tripoli's Abu Salim jail, Mohamed Ternish, chairman of the Libya Human Rights Association said.Hundreds of alleged members of the group have been freed from jail after it renounced violence last year.’
(6) = Geoff Simons (2003) ‘Libya and the West’ Center for Libyan Studies, Oxford, UK, 2003, Chapter 6 , especially pages 103 -115 (also cites summary executions of Libyans stopped at road blocks etc)
(7) = Ronald Bruce St. John (2008 ) ‘Libya – From Colony to Independence’ , Oneworld books, Oxford, UK, 2008, pages 165-171, 256-257 of paperback edition
(8) = Human Rights Watch World Report 2011 – Libya,http://www.hrw.org/en/world-report-2011/libya ; There are still dozens of unresolved disappearance cases in Libya, including those of Libyan opposition members Jaballa Hamed Matar and Izzat al-Megaryef, whom Egyptian security arrested in 1990 in Cairo. Their families later learned that Egypt had handed them over to Libyan security officials, who detained them in Abu Salim prison. Prominent Lebanese Shia cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr disappeared in Libya 32 years ago; his fate remains unknown.
(9) = Amnesty International 2010 World Report – Libya,http://report2010.amnesty.org/sites/default/files/AIR2010_AZ_EN.pdf#page=156; Hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and other human rights violations committed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s remain unresolved, and the Internal Security Agency, implicated in those violations, continued to operate with impunity.
(10) = AFP/ Sydney Morning Herald 21 Feb 2011 ‘Libyan Islamists seize arms, take hostages’,http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-world/libyan-islamists-seize-arms-take-hostages-20110221-1b19c.html
(11) = CNN 24 Feb 2011 ‘Al Qaeda's North African wing says it backs Libya uprising’,http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-24/world/libya.qaeda.statement_1_libyan-islamic-fighting-group-islamic-maghreb-al-qaeda?_s=PM:WORLD
(12) = guardian.co.uk 02 Mar 2011 ‘Muammar Gaddafi offers rebels an amnesty’,http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/02/muammar-gaddafi-offers-rebels-amnesty