By Phil Stewart
CAIRO (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday it would be up to Libyans to determine their future, stressing the limits of U.S. involvement in what threatens to become a protracted civil war.
Gates arrived in Libya's neighbor Egypt as Western warplanes pounded Muammar Gaddafi's forces for the fifth night in a row.
Gates, who had been a voice of caution in Washington in the run-up to military action in Libya, was in Cairo after a two-day trip to Russia that threw a spotlight on anxiety over coalition strikes on Gaddafi's air defenses and artillery.
Russia, China, India, Brazil and other developing countries have condemned air strikes as risky and unwarranted.
In Cairo, one Egyptian reporter drew comparisons to the 2003 Iraq invasion, which Gates swiftly rejected. Another journalist asked whether he would consider outside mediation to end the conflict, a possibility he dismissed.
"It seems to me that if there is a mediation to be done ... it is among the Libyans themselves. This matter at the end of the day is going to have to be settled by Libyans," Gates said. "It's their country."
The U.S. military, already stretched by years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, says it will hand over command of the operation to coalition allies in the coming days. Gates suggested that could happen as soon as Saturday, but refused to be pinned down to a date.
"The president has made clear that the United States is not going to have the lead on this operation for the longer term, and in fact for more than a week or so -- from the beginning of the operation," he said.
The air strikes began on Saturday, March 19, after the United Nations authorized the use of military force to prevent Gaddafi from killing civilians.
Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa telephoned U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman on Sunday after the barrage started, a senior administration official said, but added this was not seen as part of any effort by Gaddafi to craft an exit strategy.
NOT TAKING SIDES
The attacks in Libya overshadowed Gates' first visit to Egypt since its uprising led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last month, a revolution that helped inspire Libyan rebels.
Gates brushed off suggestions the United States was overtly siding with the rebels in the internal Libyan conflict, saying the U.N.-backed coalition action was limited to preventing Gaddafi from "slaughtering his own people."
"But in terms of much beyond that, I don't think that much has happened. I think these folks are still mainly fighting on their own," Gates said.
He refused to speculate on the outcome of the conflict, but stressed the U.N. resolution did not put a time limit on military action. One concern is a possible stalemate without more direct involvement to help the rebels, but Gates suggested that Gaddafi's forces or family could turn against him.
"I think there are any number possible outcomes here and no one is in a position to predict them," Gates said.
"Whether there are further major defections within his own inner circle, whether there are divisions in his family, there are a variety of possibilities it seems to me."
The United States has ruled out sending in ground forces.
Gates said it was still difficult to assess the strength of rebel fighters and the potential impact the no-fly zone.
"I think a lot of people who were in opposition and who played a role in the early days have hunkered down. And it may be that the changed circumstances where (Gaddafi) can't use his aircraft and where he is more challenged in using his amour, they return to the fight," he said.
"But we just don't know that now."
(Editing by Matthew Jones and Mohammad Zargham)