WASHINGTON The United States insisted Tuesday it will hand control of Libyan military operations to its allies within days despite disagreements over NATO's role in the air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
Once the initial U.S.-led bombardment of the Libyan leader's air defenses is complete, military planners still intend to pass on leadership of the U.N.-mandated mission, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
"I don't want to get out in front of the diplomacy that's been going on but I still think that a transfer within a few days is likely," Gates told reporters on a visit to Russia. "This command and control business is complicated. We haven't done something like this. We were kind of on-the-fly before."
As U.S. military officials play down concerns about who will lead the next phase, President Barack Obama has been trying to shore up faltering international backing for the operation by calling leaders in Europe and the Middle East.
Obama, wary of getting bogged down in another Muslim country as he tries to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Monday that NATO would have a coordinating role once the first heavy phase of military action was complete.
In Brussels, NATO diplomats sought again to bridge gaps over whether and how the 28-member alliance should run the operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of U.S. forces enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, said he was working closely with British and French officials and that military forces from 13 nations were moving to take part in the mission.
One U.S. official said Washington believed NATO would effectively have to take operational, if not political, control due to its superior command structure. That prospect threatens to alienate Arab nations over perceptions of Western aggression against a Muslim country.
"They are still looking at NATO," one U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It could be a subtle NATO lead but still a NATO lead."
Opinion polls find some U.S. public support for the Libya campaign but some members of Congress are stepping up criticism of Obama. Some say he waited too long to get involved and others warn about sending stretched U.S. forces into a third war.
OBAMA CALLS TURKEY, QATAR
Obama, who is traveling in Latin America, telephoned the Turkish and Qatari leaders on Monday evening.
NATO member Turkey has said it is unable to agree to NATO taking over the Libya no-fly zone if the scope of the operation goes beyond what the United Nations sanctioned.
Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan agreed the Libya mission should be an international effort that includes Arab states and is "enabled by NATO's unique multinational command and control capabilities to ensure maximum effectiveness," the White House said in a statement.
Western diplomats said Obama's call to Erdogan appeared to have won backing for at least some NATO role in enforcing the U.N. resolution, which could help speed the transition.
"They are not that far from the U.S on a role for NATO. There is room for negotiation there," one Washington-based diplomat said.
The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the action on Libya passed 10-0 but Russia and China, among five nations that abstained, have both voiced doubts about the campaign, echoed by other emerging powers such as India and Brazil.
Gates said some people were swallowing Gaddafi's "lies" about civilian casualties from the coalition's air strikes but he said "significant military fighting" should diminish over the next several days.
France, which launched the initial air strikes on Libya on Saturday, has argued against giving NATO political control over the operation to avoid eroding Arab support.
A senior U.S. military official said the Obama administration was discussing which countries might take on a bigger share and how the post-U.S. lead might be structured, even though the United States expects to remain responsible for some of the military actions other countries cannot match.
"We think they have pretty robust capability," said the official, adding that "everyone is at a different level." (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Phil Stewart in Moscow; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Cynthia Osterman)
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.