LONDON (Reuters) - Anyone who thought that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi would go quietly like his fellow dictators in Tunisia and Egypt may have to think again.
He has never shied from spilling blood, and his end may well prove a bloody affair.
Gaddafi has shown this week that he clearly intends to fight on and leading Libyan analysts say regime change will only come if those close to him force him aside.
The Libyan leader, experts say, believes so profoundly that he is the embodiment of his country that he is willing to bring Libya down rather than give in a two-week-long revolt against his 41-year autocratic rule.
"There is a real danger that Libya is sliding towards a long, protracted civil war," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.
"From everything we have seen so far Gaddafi is cornered, his back is to the wall and he has no exit strategy. He will most likely fight to the bitter end," he added.
On the ground, Gaddafi appeared to have taken the initiative by launching a ground and air attack on rebels in control of the eastern oil terminal town of Brega. Both rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces are arming and positioning themselves for a longer fight and residents and tribes are being armed as well by both sides.
"In the last 48 hours Gaddafi seemed to have absorbed the first shock. He is consolidating his limited power base," said Gerges.
"The Gaddafi regime is positioning itself for a prolonged fight. He has adequate military and financial assets to fight.
Even though Gaddafi has lost control over large swathes of Libya he seems ready to reduce the country to Somalia-like ruins rather than surrender power, experts say.
"Gaddafi reduced the Libyan people to his persona," said Saad Djebbar, a London-based Algerian lawyer who was involved in the negotiations over the Lockerbie bombing.
"Gaddafi's aim will be to create chaos and put the country through civil war or Somalisation -- no central power, a divided country in which he will remain a force," said Djebbar.
"Gaddafi has containers of dollars, he has guns to arm people and he has loyalists, the more chaos he creates the better (for him)," Djebbar added. "His message is: apres moi le deluge. You force me out of power and I will leave either a divided country or a country in civil war like Somalia."
The uprising, the bloodiest yet against despotic rulers in the region, was sparked by the arrest of a human rights lawyer in Benghazi on Feb. 14.
Revolt quickly spread, with Libyans from all walks of life -- professionals, academics, tribesmen, former soldiers and students -- demanding an end to Gaddafi's repressive rule.
Libyans have not experience democracy since he ousted King Idris and created a police state in 1969.
The mercurial leader has managed to cling to power through a carefully constructed security apparatus. The press remains gagged, despite a slight easing of curbs in recent years, freedom of speech is unheard of and political parties are illegal.
But 41 years of repression have brought simmering discontent to the boil.
Added to that, for many Libyans and world leaders, the former army officer is the evil hand behind terrorism inside and outside his country. Gaddafi has spent much of Libya's oil cash financing terrorists responsible for hijacks and killings and groups seeking to kill dissidents and destabilise pro-Western governments in Africa.
The Libyan upheaval has not only proven to be bloodier and costlier but more protracted than Tunis and Egypt, raising the risks of ethnic war that could fragment the country, trigger a humanitarian crisis and further jeopardise oil supplies.
In Egypt and Tunisia, powerful military elites ultimately decided the outcome of the revolutions, easing unpopular leaders Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from office. But in Libya it is more opaque and complex tribal power structures could decide how events play out.
Having risen through the military himself, Gaddafi emasculated the army to prevent its commanders from threatening him following periodic failed coup attempts.
"He knows from his own experience that coup d'etats come from the army so he closed the way for any potential coup d'etat a long time ago. He dismantled the army and set up instead what he called the popular army," said Djebbar.
He created well-armed and tightly knit brigades led by his own al-Gaddadfa tribe and by al-Magarha, another tribe headed by Abdullah Sanussi, Gaddafi's brother-in-law and chief enforcer.
Experts agree that part of the explanation for Gaddafi's survival is linked to having his sons in charge of his security and his own tribe occupying the most important positions.
"His units are die-hard loyalists, based on skin and kin, blood ties which for Gaddafi are more important than ideology. He has his son Khamis who is in charge of a special army unit," Djebbar said.
Those familiar with Gaddafi say he is the only decision-maker, a man with absolute authority who does not delegate power to anybody, not even to his own sons.
On the ground, the balance of power looks equal. Gaddafi and his forces control the capital Tripoli and some nearby towns as well as his birthplace Sirte further east, the site of large arsenals and bases designed to guard oil infrastructure.
The rebels hold Benghazi, Misrata and Zawiyah and Jebel Nafusa southwest of Tripoli.
"Gaddafi has not given up, the attack he launched on Brega is an indication that he intends to carry on, " said George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University.
GADDAFI "WON'T END NICELY"
Despite the defection of large numbers of tribes some still support him including his own Gaddadfa community.
"The forces on the ground might be quite well balanced. It really can go on for quite some time. If you control Benghazi you control (the eastern region of) Cyrenaica," said Joffe.
"If you control Tripoli you control Tripolitania. In those circumstances you could have two forces relatively well balanced who can confront each other for a long time."
On the table is a peace plan devised by from Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, according to Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Venezuela says Gaddafi has accepted it, but there has been no confirmation. Rebels have said they would not negotiate with Gaddafi, and their reaction to the plan is not known.
One scenario for a peaceful exit is to have some sort of tribal deal.
This might see a combination of the sons of Gaddafi, his daughter and Sanussi push him aside and allow the Gaddadfa tribe and al-Magarha, former officers and dignitaries to enter into talks with tribes in the east to grant Gaddafi safe passage to retire in his hometown of Sirte.
They in turn could make commitments to guarantee the security of the family.
The other option is for him to go abroad with immunity from prosecution. But this option may not be possible after the International Criminal Court said Gaddafi and members of his inner circle could be investigated for alleged crimes committed against civilians by security forces.
Joffe said he suspected Gaddafi would eventually be overthrown in a palace coup.
"The way it will come to an end is if his domestic support ends from his family, tribes, his own battalion or army unit -- if they remove their support he is finished..."
"It wont end nicely.
(Editing by William Maclean)
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