U.S. presses plan to hand off Libya war command soon

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 1:23 PM

By Andrew Quinn and Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States insisted on Tuesday it will hand control of Libyan military operations to its allies within days despite rows over NATO's leadership role in the air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

Once the initial U.S.-led bombardment against Libyan leader Gaddafi's air defenses is complete, military planners still intend to pass on the leadership baton, 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.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been trying to shore up faltering international backing for Libyan military operations 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 on Monday NATO would have a coordinating role once the first heavy phase of military action was complete.

In Brussels, NATO diplomats sought again to bridge differences over whether and how the 28-member alliance should run the operation to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya.

Opinion polls show tepid U.S. public support for the Libya campaign as some members of Congress step 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, 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.

INTERNATIONAL DOUBTS

The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the action on Libya passed by 10-0 but Russia and China, which were 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 although it says NATO could support the it.

U.S. officials said Washington believed NATO would effectively have to take operational if not political control due to its superior command and control capacity.

"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."

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 Sean Maguire)