|Libya Table of Contents
Italy, which became a unified state only in 1860, was a late starter in the race for colonies. For the Italians, the marginal Turkish provinces in Libya seemed to offer an obvious compensation for their humiliating acquiescence to the establishment of a French protectorate in Tunisia, a country coveted by Italy as a potential colony. Italy intensified its long-standing commercial interests in Libya and, in a series of diplomatic manuevers, won from the major powers their recognition of an Italian sphere of influence there. It was assumed in European capitals that Italy would sooner or later seize the opportunity to take political and military action in Libya as well.
In September 1911 Italy engineered a crisis with Turkey charging that the Turks had committed a "hostile act" by arming Arab tribesmen in Libya. When Turkey refused to respond to an ultimatum calling for Italian military occupation to protect Italian interests in the region, Italy declared war. After a preliminary naval bombardment, Italian troops landed and captured Tripoli on October 3, encountering only slight resistance. Italian forces also occupied Tobruk, Al Khums, Darnah, and Benghazi.
In the ensuing months, the Italian expeditionary force, numbering 35,000, barely penetrated beyond its several beachheads. The 5,000 Turkish troops defending the provinces at the time of the invasion withdrew inland a few kilometers, where officers such as Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) organized the Arab tribes in a resistance to the Italians that took on the aspects of a holy war. But with war threatening in the Balkans, Turkey was compelled to sue for peace with Italy. In accordance with the treaty signed at Lausanne in October 1912, the sultan issued a decree granting independence to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica while Italy simultaneously announced its formal annexation of those territories. The sultan, in his role as caliph (leader of Islam), was to retain his religious jurisdiction there and was permitted to appoint the qadi of Tripoli, who supervised the sharia courts. But the Italians were unable to appreciate that no distinction was made between civil and religious jurisdiction in Islamic law. Thus, through the courts, the Turks kept open a channel of influence over their former subjects and subverted Italian authority. Peace with Turkey meant for Italy the beginning of a twenty-year colonial war in Libya.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress