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Poor Libyans hope revolution will improve services

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 22 2011 11:10 a.m. MDT

In this picture taken Sunday, Sept. 18, 201, a unfinished building is seen in the middle of the desert of Libya as Libya fighters take control of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists villages at 750 kms south of Tripoli in Gohta, north of the southern city of Sabha. Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John said Gadhafi's regime wasted money over the years in countless ways: Spending lavishly on ill-designed building projects; stocking unsustainable armories; and bankrolling the lavish lifestyles of Gadhafi's family members and associates.

Francois Mori, Associated Press

MAHROUQA, Libya — The men who lined the potholed road were so overjoyed that they cheered, sang, danced and wept as Libyan fighters from the country's new leadership for the first time rolled into this impoverished hamlet deep in the southern deserts.

But while Libya's new rulers focus on replacing Moammar Gadhafi's regime with a democratic government, many here hope the revolution will first bring amenities that have long been rare in this sun-baked inland region: Paved roads, medical care and flush toilets.

"We've been waiting for them for a long time," said Mohammed Saleh, 43, who flashed a V-for-victory sign as the fighters passed his simple concrete house late last week. "Now we expect the electricity and the water to come back on."

The uprising that toppled Gadhafi's regime last month was fueled in part by widespread frustration with how little the country's oil wealth has translated into better lives for Libya's 6.5 million people.

Aware of the potency of economic grievances, the leaders of the National Transitional Council, the closest thing the country has to a government, have vowed to use Libya's resources for the general good. Council head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said recently he seeks to create a "state of prosperity" where even the unemployed would receive salaries.

The council's ability to fulfill such promises will largely determine its success at extending its control over the country, especially in areas where support for Gadhafi remains.

Libya boasts Africa's largest proven oil reserves and produced 1.6 million barrels daily before the anti-Gadhafi revolt erupted in mid-February. Last year, Libya raked in $40 billion from oil and gas exports — a fortune from which many Libyans say they've seen little benefit.

Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John said Gadhafi's regime wasted money over the years in countless ways: Spending lavishly on ill-designed building projects; stocking unsustainable arsenals; and bankrolling the lavish lifestyles of Gadhafi's family members and associates.

At the same time, the regime failed to invest in education, develop the economy and build strong communications and transportation infrastructure.

"This is the major development failure of the Gadhafi regime," he said.

Before the uprising, Libya ranked 53 out of 169 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, just behind Uruguay, Palau and Cuba, countries with no significant oil wealth. Most Gulf Arab nations ranked higher, with per capita incomes more than twice as high — though Libya slipped in ahead of oil giant Saudi Arabia because of a longer life expectancy and longer schooling, despite the kingdom's higher per capita income.

Even in the relatively affluent coastal cities where most Libyans live, residents bemoan their bumpy roads, bad schools and poor infrastructure.

But the complaints ring louder further south in Libya's desert stretches, in areas like the parched Wadi al-Shati region some 440 miles (700 kilometers) south of Tripoli.

Over the past week, hundreds of fighters have been driving through the region's 22 villages in a preliminary attempt to spread the NTC's control.

Most of the fighters are young men from Tripoli who say the region's poverty shocks them. Some of the villages — with names like "Cat," ''Sons of Yellow" and "Burnt" — consist of no more than simple, cinderblock houses surrounded by date palms and connected by dirt roads. Some homes lack running water, and few have central sewage. Jobs are lacking, with those not employed by the government raising goats and camels in the desert.

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