By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday Libyans themselves would decide the future of their country and stressed the limits of U.S. military involvement there, despite a heavy American-led assault on Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
Gates, speaking as he flew to Russia, said the U.S. will not have a "preeminent role" in the coalition that will maintain a no-fly zone over Libya, and expected to turn over "primary responsibility" for the mission to others within days.
Britain or France could take charge of the air operation, or NATO could lead, if sensitivities among the Arab League over working under the Western alliance leadership were assuaged.
Gates spoke amid growing concern among U.S. politicians over the scope and nature of the Libya mission and after an acknowledgement from the top U.S. military officer that the assault on Gaddafi's forces could lead to an impasse.
The United States says the U.N.-endorsed intervention is aimed at forcing Gaddafi's troops into a ceasefire and ending attacks on civilians who launched an uprising last month.
President Barack Obama has called in recent weeks for Gaddafi to step down but U.S. officials have emphasized that is not the goal of the United Nations authorized attacks on Libya. The United States is eager to avoid similarities to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and ouster of President Saddam Hussein.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for 41 years, had been taking back large swathes of territory from rebels until the air attacks, which may give the rebels the chance to regroup. Military analysts say it is unclear if they can.
"I think this is basically going to have to be resolved by the Libyans themselves," said Gates. "Whether or not there is additional outside help for the rebels remains to be seen."
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the CBS program "Face the Nation" the air mission in the North African country has a clear, limited scope.
But Mullen said the outcome of military action in Libya was "very uncertain." Asked if it could end in a stalemate with Gaddafi, Mullen replied: "I don't think that's for me to answer. Certainly, I recognize that's a possibility."
Gates said the United States wanted Libya to remain a unified country, saying partition into a rebel-held east and Gaddafi-controlled west "would be a real formula for enduring instability."
The aerial assault by U.S., French and British planes has halted an advance by Gaddafi's armored units on the rebel-held city of Benghazi and attacks on air defenses and radar sites have allowed the ad-hoc Western coalition to establish "a consistent and persistent" air presence over Libya, enforcing a no-fly zone, a U.S. official said.
Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, director of the U.S. military's Joint Staff, told reporters there had been no new Libyan air activity or radar emissions and had been a significant decrease in Libyan air surveillance since strikes began Saturday.
Benghazi was not yet free from threat, said Gortney, but Gaddafi's forces in the area were in "significant distress" and "suffering from isolation and confusion" following air assaults on their positions.
PRESSING FOR CLARITY
Senior Republicans pressed U.S. President Barack Obama to give a clear rationale for the Libya mission, reflecting concern that U.S. forces could get bogged down in a long-running, costly operation that lacks defined goals.
"The administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress and our troops, what the mission in Libya is," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, said in a statement.
"I am concerned that the use of military force in the absence of clear political objectives for our country risks entrenching the United States in a humanitarian mission whose scope and duration are not known," added Republican Representative Howard McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Mullen insisted Western military operations are narrowly focused on protecting civilians and aiding humanitarian efforts.
Underlining the cautious U.S. approach, Gortney said the coalition was not targeting Gaddafi himself, and that the U.S. would hand over command of the operation to coalition forces within days. He did not specify who would take charge.
The U.S. role would then shift to support operations including intelligence, signal jamming, aerial refueling and humanitarian efforts.
The United States is now fighting in three conflicts -- Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya -- while struggling under a huge budget deficit and national debt. The Pentagon also has plans to cut $78 billion in defense spending over five years.
France sent an aircraft carrier toward Libya and its planes were over the country again Sunday, defense officials said. Britain said its planes had targeted Libya's air defenses mainly around the capital Tripoli.
U.S. Navy Growlers provided electronic support while AV-8B Harriers from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit conducted air strikes against Gaddafi's ground forces and air defenses.
Missile strikes launched by the United States and Britain as part of a bid to cripple Libyan air defenses hit 20 of 22 targets, the U.S. military said. The military also said three U.S. stealth bombers took part in airstrikes early Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Missy Ryan, Vicki Allen and Caren Bohan; Writing by Alistair Bell and Sean Maguire)