MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States will still be able to pass command of Libyan military operations to allies within the next few days, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday, brushing aside concerns of a potential delay.
Divisions in Europe have fueled speculation that Washington will be forced to retain leadership of air patrols to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, even once an initial U.S.-led bombardment against air defenses is complete.
"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 during a visit to Russia.
He declined to say who might lead the operations but left open the possibility that "NATO machinery" might be drawn upon once the United States steps back to a support role.
"This isn't a NATO mission. This is a mission in which the NATO machinery may be used for command and control," he said.
Asked whether he was frustrated by the delay so far, Gates said: "This command and control business is complicated. We haven't done something like this. We were kind of on-the-fly before."
"So it's not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out," Gates said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)