WASHINGTON — Libya's victorious revolutionaries now face a new threat: themselves.
The secular and the religious, the politicians and the militants all basked in the demise of a dictator Thursday after fighters killed Moammar Gadhafi and eradicated once and for all his four decades of repression in Libya. But while congratulations poured in from across the world, the Obama administration and others tempered the celebrations with a dose of caution, conscious that Libya's formerly ragtag band of rebels must now avoid falling prey to extremists among themselves or the type of political infighting that has hijacked the hopes of previous revolutions.
Gadhafi's death clears a cloud over Libya's shaky interim government while focusing new scrutiny on the former rebels and exiles now in charge and possible candidates to lead a permanent government. Despite a public embrace of Libya's transitional leadership, the U.S. remains leery of some of the motives of those who have promised a quick move to elections and democracy.
And, while no official said it, the fear of an Islamist surge in power hangs over Libya's unsure future.
"This is a momentous day in the history of Libya," President Barack Obama declared from the White House Rose Garden. "The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted, and with this enormous promise the Libyan people now have a great responsibility: to build an inclusive and tolerant and democratic Libya that stands as the ultimate rebuke to Gadhafi's dictatorship. We look forward to the announcement of the country's liberation, the quick formation of an interim government and a stable transition to Libya's first free and fair elections."
The 69-year-old Gadhafi was killed by revolutionary fighters overwhelming his hometown of Sirte, the last bastion of his supporters' resistance. Along with the reported capture of Gadhafi's son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam, and the killing of Gadhafi's son and security chief, Mutassim, Thursday's developments appeared to signal a decisive end to eight months of civil war in the North African country.
The National Transitional Council's largely secular leadership has promised to respect human rights and the rule of law and usher in an inclusive era of government, but it is held together by a shaky coalition of individuals with competing interests and ambitions. There is a massive power vacuum and uncertainty about what or who will fill it.
Armed groups across the country have emerged as laws unto themselves. Interim leader Mahmoud Jibril has indicated he will step aside once Libya's liberation is complete, creating possibly another vacuum. And in a country awash in weaponry, where Gadhafi's once vast arsenal of conventional arms and rocket-propelled missiles have been looted, the threat of widespread instability is high.
Obama said the U.S. was "under no illusions."
"Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy," he said. "There will be difficult days ahead. But the United States, together with the international community, is committed to the Libyan people. You have won your revolution, and now we will be a partner as you forge a future that provides dignity, freedom and opportunity."
Libya's patchwork of competing tribal and regional loyalties makes it a challenging place to govern under any circumstances, and 42 years of idiosyncratic rule under Gadhafi compounds the difficulty. He drained the country of institutions, eliminated any threat to his authority and defined nearly all aspects of life through his political vision that centered on a green book, powerless "people's committees" and his unpredictable antics.
The U.S. has directed its diplomacy through a narrow group of Libya's ex-government officials, lawyers and economists with questionable influence on the streets. Washington has delivered only a fraction of the billions in Gadhafi assets it has seized, and it has hedged support for some NTC allies who are promising a quick move to elections and democracy but have spotty resumes.
"Nobody is in charge," said Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You have a council that is barely able to work together, and you have militias with no chain of command. In the course of the next week or so, they are going to have to figure out how to govern."
"The revolution is over and the state-building must begin, and we have no clue how they are going to do it," added Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Oxford. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Libya does not have an old constitution or parliament to turn to because Gadhafi so thoroughly decimated the government, and Libyans "have no working civil service, no proper ministries and no officials with a mandate from the people."
The NTC's public statements have sometimes raised eyebrows, as when military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis' body was found dumped outside the eastern city of Benghazi in July. Leaders insisted the assassination was the work of the Gadhafi regime, even as several witnesses came forward and said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner echoed that the "tricky part" of the revolution begins now, saying Libya's leaders should move rapidly "to establish control over the military" and "to establish control throughout the country."
"You've got militias, you've got units that have been very much involved in fighting, and it's a significant challenge how to bring them under a single command," he said.
Revolutions are often abducted by armed or organized minority interests. Iran ousted the shah in 1979 but soon fell under a repressive theocracy that in many ways was more intolerant than its predecessor. Russia's communists quickly eliminated the rival groups that helped overthrow the czar last century. By removing the whole political order, as opposed to a head of state or head of government, revolutions are by nature unpredictable and dangerous.
Libya's fighters include both secular and religious Muslims, and their militias will almost surely demand a large role in Libya's governance. Some come with questionable pasts, having waged jihad against U.S. forces in Iraq or belonged to hardline Islamist groups suppressed under Gadhafi's dictatorship. And with a third of the country impoverished, the U.S. and other Western powers are worried about what will happen if the jubilation of defeating Gadhafi turns to entrenched political frustration.
"My guess is that there will be more fighting," said retired U.S. diplomat Leslie H. Gelb.
Ali Errishi, a former Libyan minister who abandoned Gadhafi early in the revolution and called for his ouster, said the best strategy for stability would be to start democracy work immediately.
"We don't have to wait for elections," Errishi said in an interview. He said the leaders of Libya's "quasi-democratic" council should "give everybody a chance and show the rest of the world we are capable of having a civilized democratic conversation for the best interests of our people."