With Libya on the brink of deposing Gaddafi, a look at the unpredictable final moments of other regimes. When armies close in on a capital city in which a beleaguered regime is trying to hold out, the only thing that is predictable is that there will be surprises. Events move faster than expected, or they move more slowly. The regime going down may have rather more life left in it than expected, or it may put up far less resistance than was thought likely.The least likely outcome is a street-by-street fight through the city – usually there is either a collapse of will by the defenders or a final political fix, which gives some of them a way out. A few examples from recent history:
Berlin 1945: the full Götterdämmerung
Hitler fought to the last teenager in the scratch units pulled together after his regular forces were worn down, what remained of the city after air attacks was largely destroyed, and civilians suffered terribly both during the fighting and after. No political compromise was possible between the Nazi leadership and the Russians. The last groups defending the bunker area were largely composed of foreigners, Frenchmen and Scandinavians in SS units.
Phnom Penh, 1975: back to year zero
The city fell to Khmer Rouge forces after the defending forces on the outskirts gave up – there was little damage and few civilian casualties. An apprehensive but cautiously hopeful citizenry expected a harsh but fair government, which would not punish ordinary people, many of them recent refugees from the fighting in the countryside. They got the opposite. Within a few days the Khmer Rouge had force marched the entire population out of the city and set them to forced labour in the paddy fields.
Saigon, 1975: crashing the presidential palace
North Vietnamese and Vietcong units raced to the centre after the south Vietnamese army gave up the last defensible bridge over the Mekong. Fears that the city would be reduced by north Vietnamese artillery proved unfounded, there was little fighting in the city itself, and few civilian deaths. The first north Vietnamese tank got lost in the maze of city centre streets but a second located the palace, where interim president Duong Van Minh was waiting in the hope of negotiating a compromise settlement, and smashed through the ornamental gates. The illusion that there could be some kind of a deal was soon dissipated.
Dhaka, 1971: the writing on the wall
Senior Pakistani officers, their forces in full retreat before the invading Indian army, decided to sue for a ceasefire after Indian MiGs bombed Government House. The only casualties, according to one account, were some goldfish whose tank was smashed, but the attack had the effect of clarifying the situation. The Indian commander, Sam Manekshaw, accepted the ceasefire proposal. Gavin Young of the Observer witnessed the surrender ceremony and according to one account had earlier had to explain to the governor of East Pakistan that he was not in a position to accept a surrender by him. There was no fighting in the city between regular forces but there were acts of retribution and revenge.
Manila, 1986: people power
The Marcos regime was toppled through a combination of civil disobedience and protest led by Cory Aquino and the defection and intervention of military units. There were few casualties, little fighting after the majority of the armed forces changed sides, inspired by the secretary of defence Juan Ponce Enrile, General Ramos and Cardinal Jaime Sin. Crowds break into the presidential palace and gaze in wonder at Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection.
Tehran, 1979: not with a bang but a whimper
The shah left Iran in the charge of an interim government, but his departure so disheartened his armed forces and his civilian supporters that the whole security edifice crumbled within hours of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile. One small battle had preceded it, and there was virtually no fighting afterwards. Neither the feared Imperial Guard nor the Special Forces ever went into action. Most Iranians expected a government of national unity, but the reality turned out to be otherwise.
Baghdad, 2003: unprepared and overwhelmed
American forces burst into the city against sporadic resistance, which never entirely disappeared and was to evolve into a major insurrection. Looting and disorder spread through the urban region as the American units concentrated on narrow military tasks, notably ignoring the sacking of the National Museum. Confused and ill-prepared civilian administrative teams dribbled in over the next few weeks, as Donald Rumsfeld spouted optimistic one liners in Washington and the situation in Iraq deteriorated daily.