In the next few weeks Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is likely to lose power.

The forces arrayed against him are too strong. His own political and military support is too weak.

The United States, Britain and France are scarcely going to permit a stalemate to develop whereby he clings onto Tripoli and parts of western Libya, while the rebels hold the east of the country.

Even before the air strikes, Gaddafi had not been able to mobilise more than about 1500 men to advance on Benghazi, and many of these were not trained soldiers. The reason for their advance is that the rebels in the east were unable to throw into the fighting the 6000 soldiers whose defection touched off the original uprising.

The first days of foreign intervention mirror the experience of the US and its allies in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 by going extremely well. Air attacks shattered a column of tanks and infantry south of Benghazi. Survivors have fled. The rout may soon resemble the rapid dissolutions of the Taleban and the Iraqi Army.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, most people were glad to get rid of their rulers, and most Libyans will be glad to see the back of Gaddafi. His regime may well fall more quickly than is currently expected.

Pundits have been wagging their fingers in the past few days, saying Gaddafi may be mad but he is not stupid, but this is to underestimate the opera bouffe quality of his regime.

It is the next stage in Libya - after the fall of Gaddafi - which has the potential to produce a disaster similar to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases successful war left the US as the predominant power in the country.

In Iraq this rapidly turned into an old-fashioned imperial occupation. "The occupation was the mother of all mistakes," as one Iraqi leader is fond of repeating. In Afghanistan, the US always called the shots, even if Hamid Karzai headed the Government.

The same problem is going to arise in Libya. There will be a lack of a credible local partner. The rebels have shown that they are politically and militarily weak. Indeed, if this had not been so, there would have been no need for a foreign intervention to save them.

The local leaders who rise to the top in these circumstances are usually those who speak the best English and get on with the US and its allies. In Baghdad and Kabul those who initially rose were those who fawned the most and who were prepared to go before Congress to express fulsome gratitude for America's actions.

There is a further complication. Libya is an oil state like Iraq, and oil wealth tends to bring out the worst in almost everybody. It leads to autocracy because whoever controls the oil revenues can pay for powerful security forces and ignore the public. Few states wholly reliant on oil are democracies.

Aspirant Libyan leaders who play their cards right over the next few months could put themselves in a position to make a lot of money. An Iraqi civil servant in Baghdad commented cynically before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that "the exiled Iraqis are an exact replica of those who currently govern us", but the present leadership was sated "since they have been robbing us for 30 years" while the new rulers "will be ravenous".

Already there are signs that British Prime Minister David Cameron, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are coming to believe too much of their own propaganda, particularly over Arab League support for air strikes.

Diplomats normally contemptuous of the views of the Arab League suddenly treat its call for a no-fly zone as evidence that the Arab world favours intervention.

This could change very fast. Arab League leaders are mostly people whom the "Arab Awakening" is trying to displace. Military participation in action against the Libyan Government is expected from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, members of the Gulf Co-operation Council that clubs together Gulf monarchies. This is the same GCC that has just sent troops to Bahrain to help the Government crush pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority.

The worst verifiable atrocity in the Arab world in the past week was not in Libya but in Yemen, where pro-government gunmen machine-gunned an unarmed demonstration last Saturday, killing 52 people.

In terms of the exercise of real authority, Gaddafi is likely to be replaced not by Libyans but by the foreign powers which assist in his overthrow.

Going by what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq it will not take much for their actions to be seen across the Middle East as hypocritical and self-serving, and resisted as such.

WHERE TO FROM HERE
Scenario 1 - Gaddafi driven swiftly from power

The most optimistic members of the coalition will be hoping that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's support is more motivated by fear than loyalty and likely to evaporate in the face of any sustained assault. Under this scenario the pro-Gaddafi forces will melt away under aerial attack, leaving the rebels with little opposition barring the way to Tripoli - and the dictator isolated, or gone, when they get there. The swift emergence of a credible interim leadership would be the best possible result for the UN.

Scenario 2 - The loyalists retreat but regime stays

If Gaddafi's forces are so damaged that any serious new assault on rebel cities appears impossible, an uneasy peace may settle. With the UN resolution limited to demanding that the regime ends assaults on its own citizens, support for a more prolonged campaign could fade away. If so, a weakened Gaddafi could cling to power in the short term. But if he were removed in a palace coup, there is no certainty the replacements would be any more democratic.

Scenario 3 - Uneasy peace as country splits in two

If Gaddafi can retain the support of key members of the regime in Tripoli and develop a permanent hold on Libya's oil, defeat in the east would not necessarily mean the end of his leadership. He could keep the UN at bay by refraining from any further attacks in the east, letting the rebels establish a more permanent power base in Benghazi. But the uprising is not regional and a split nation is unlikely to satisfy the rebels. Given time to consolidate they could push west once more.

Scenario 4 - Appetite for conflict fades in the West

Despite his military limitations, Gaddafi will hope to make the conflict seem likely to be long, bloody and fruitless. The regime has already claimed the UN strikes have hit hospitals and civilians - and large parts of the country receive only state media. If there are real humanitarian consequences, the Western public - fatigued by years of war - could turn against the campaign. If so it is possible that domestic political concerns could force the alliance to seek a fast exit.

Scenario 5 - Attacks on Europe leave Gaddafi on top

Gaddafi does not seem to have the resources to make good on his threat to unleash revenge attacks across the Mediterranean. But given his history, there is little question that he is willing to do so. If an increased threat to European civilians is matched by a drawn-out and bloody military campaign, the UN will be faced with two unpalatable options: put troops on the ground, or accept that Gaddafi can do as he pleases. But with the Libyan military so weak, this is by some distance the less likely possibility.

WHAT'S IN A NAME
* Naming a military campaign can be fraught with difficulties. President George W. Bush faced scorn over Operation Infinite Justice, the initial name for the military action into Afghanistan in 2001. Muslim groups protested on the grounds that their faith teaches that only Allah can provide infinite justice. Hence nearly a decade later, United States and other Nato troops are still fighting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

* Military officials displayed a little more caution before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with the less imaginative title of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

* The thinking behind the name Odyssey Dawn has not yet been revealed, but it has already been lampooned, with James Wolcott writing in Vanity Fair that the name reminded him of a seventies porn star.Independent

- INDEPENDENT