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Figure 3. The Italian Conquest of Libya, 1921-31
Italian colonial policy was abruptly altered with the accession
to power of Mussolini's fascist government in October 1922.
Mussolini, the one-time critic of colonialism, wholeheartedly
endorsed Volpi's policy of military pacification and, although
accurate intelligence was lacking in Rome, he fully supported the
decisions made in the field by army commanders. The 1923 Treaty of
Lausanne between the Allied Powers--including Italy--and Atatürk's
new government in Turkey made final the dismemberment of the old
Ottoman Empire and provided conclusive international sanction for
Italy's annexation of Libya.
The second Italo-Sanusi war commenced early in 1923 with the
Italian occupation of Sanusi territory in the Benghazi area.
Resistance in Cyrenaica was fierce from the outset, but northern
Tripolitania was subdued in 1923, and its southern region and
Fezzan were gradually pacified over the next several years. During
the whole period, however, the principal Italian theater of
operations was Cyrenaica
In Idris' absence a hardy but aging shaykh, Umar al Mukhtar,
had overall command of Sanusi fighting forces in Cyrenaica, never
numbering more than a few thousand organized in tribal units.
Mukhtar, a veteran of many campaigns, was a master of desert
guerrilla tactics. Leading small, mobile bands, he attacked
outposts, ambushed troop columns, cut lines of supply and
communication, and then faded into the familiar terrain. Italian
forces, under Rudolfo Graziani's command after 1929, were largely
composed of Eritreans. Unable to fight a decisive battle with the
Sanusis, Graziani imposed an exhausting war of attrition,
conducting unremitting search-and-destroy missions with armored
columns and air support against the oases and tribal camps that
sheltered Mukhtar's men. Troops herded beduins into concentration
camps, blocked wells, and slaughtered livestock. In 1930 Graziani
directed construction of a barbed-wire barrier 9 meters wide and
1.5 meters high stretching 320 kilometers from the coast south
along the Egyptian frontier to cut Mukhtar off from his sanctuaries
and sources of supply across the border. The area around the
barrier, constantly patrolled by armor and aircraft, was designated
a free-fire zone. The Italians' superior manpower and technology
began to take their toll on the Libyans, but Mukhtar fought on with
his steadily dwindling numbers in a shrinking theater of
operations, more from habit than from conviction that the Italians
could be dislodged from Cyrenaica.
Al Kufrah, the last Sanusi stronghold, fell in 1931, and in
September of that year Mukhtar was captured. After a summary courtmartial , he was hanged before a crowd of 20,000 Arabs assembled to
witness the event. With the death of Mukhtar, Sanusi resistance
collapsed, and the Italian pacification of Libya was completed.
Even in defeat, Mukhtar remained a symbol of Arab defiance to
colonial domination, and he was revered as a national hero.
Data as of 1987