The bloody lessons of Iraq will loom large as 60 world leaders and top-level envoys work in Paris to map Libya's future beyond the end of Moammar Gadhafi's iron-fisted regime.
Years of insurgent violence in Iraq are a warning to leaders at Thursday's conference -- including EU and Arab chiefs, rebel leaders and the U.S. secretary of state -- of the potential for ongoing postwar bloodshed. They are likely to focus on unfreezing billions in Libyan funds held abroad and in reconciling diplomatic differences on the way ahead in a country led by an all-powerful dictator for four decades.
"We are going to turn the page of the dictatorship and the fighting, and open a new era of cooperation with democratic Libya," French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted in a speech Wednesday to French diplomats.
The fall of Gadhafi, who remains at large but whose regime has all but collapsed under the onslaught of NATO-led air power and rebel fighters, has fanned talk of parallels with the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 -- notably among Iraqis who warn that Libya's postwar aftermath could devolve into similar chaos.
Much of the responsibility to avert such a future is being placed upon Libya's one-time rebels. The conference 42 years to the day after Gadhafi seized power in a coup is shaping up as a coming-out party for their interim National Transitional Council, which appears poised to succeed him.
NTC leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril are expected to be among 13 heads of state, 19 prime ministers, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and leaders of NATO, the European Union, African Union, Arab League, and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Conference at the closed-door meeting. Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, two of the most vocal backers of the rebels, will co-host.
Unlike previous meetings when the international community sought to flesh out the way forward in Libya, "this time, I think you'll see the new Libyan government at the front and center," said a senior British diplomat.
French officials say leaders of the NTC are aware of the lessons from the Iraq war aftermath and will make a conscious effort to avoid the kind of revenge killings that spilled so much Iraqi blood.
NTC leaders are "very careful to extend a hand on the condition that those in front of them have no blood on their hands and didn't participate in the crimes of the Gadhafi regime," a top official in Sarkozy's office said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Libya faces a tricky alchemy in the weeks ahead: Many rebels have different tribal loyalties, the country is awash in weapons -- some seized from bombed-out or pillaged army barracks -- and Gadhafi loyalists could be a wild card. The Libyan council must also restore electricity, battle food and water shortages, reopen schools -- and, a key priority, pay salaries.
The French official criticized as "a big mistake" the U.S. decision in Iraq to fire police, soldiers and members of Saddam's Baath party, "who all of a sudden were without jobs, kept their weapons, were in the opposition and had no future."
Libya and Iraq are linked by vast oil wealth; Iraq's sectarian divisions and Libya's tribal differences; and longtime autocratic rulers who helped spur economic development but often quashed dissent with an iron fist.
But, Libya is also bigger than Iraq, much less populous, and located in a less threatening neighborhood than Iraq is. The NATO campaign in Libya has lasted just six months so far, and unlike Iraq, didn't involve foreign fighters on the ground.
There are other diplomatic challenges to be addressed Thursday. World powers found themselves at odds over the NATO campaign that gave rebel fighters air cover. Russia and China, for example, say NATO overstepped its mandate, and want to protect their financial interests in a future Libya.
This meeting contrasts with an emergency Paris summit on Libya on March 19, when 22 participants backed military action against Gadhafi's forces in support of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing it.
Some countries that opposed military action, including Russia and China, didn't come to Paris then. But they are sending top-level diplomats on Thursday -- a tacit acknowledgment that it's time to move on.
Thursday's gathering will mark the end of the so-called "contact group" on Libya -- the circle of nations formed in Paris in March, and attendees will now create a larger "Friends of Libya" group, a British official said.
French officials said the NTC has laid out an 18-month timetable in which a panel drawn from around Libya will draft a constitution to be voted on in a national referendum, and then national elections will be held.
The United States, already committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely left center stage on the Libya effort to its NATO allies plus key Arab allies, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
In the spring, as Libya's rebellion gathered steam, the U.N. Security Council passed two resolutions that froze billions of dollars in assets held abroad by Gadhafi's regime and allowed the NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians.
European powers stepped up efforts Wednesday to return Libya to normalcy, with France and Germany asking a U.N. panel to unblock Libyan assets frozen in their countries. French officials say at least $50 billion linked to Gadhafi is believed to be squirreled away in banks across the world. British officials have put the figure as high as $110 billion.
A senior British diplomat said a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya that would lift all remaining asset freezes and formally recognize the opposition as the country's new government could be put to a vote next week -- once there's "more clarity on the situation on the ground."
"Gadhafi out of the picture would be the best clarity that one could have," the British diplomat said on condition of anonymity to discuss talks on the U.N. resolution.
Meanwhile, a European Union official said a working group gave a green light for the de-listing of six Libyan port authorities and other firms from its sanctions list. And Italy said it will reopen its embassy in Tripoli on Thursday.
Jim Heintz in Moscow, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.