By David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO states could agree in hours for the alliance to take over command of military operations in Libya from coalition forces, a NATO official said on Sunday.
The agreement could be reached at a meeting of NATO ambassadors which started at 1600 GMT, the official said, adding that the military committee of the 28-nation alliance had finalized its operations plan.
"That's a good sign," the official said. "Either the operations plan is approved by the ambassadors tonight, or that may happen tomorrow. Either way, it's a matter of hours."
An agreement by ambassadors would mean the council of the NATO states would take political control of all military operations, including ground strikes to protect civilians, from a coalition led by France, the United States and Britain.
However, a high-level body to include Arab states, expected to emerge from an international conference in London on Tuesday, would give "broad political guidance," the official said.
A decision for NATO to take over military operations has been delayed by disagreements between NATO members France and Turkey over political control of the mission, but these differences appear to have narrowed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News in an interview she expected a "positive" decision for NATO to take over the mission.
"Just as the arms embargo and the no-fly zone has been transitioned to NATO command and control, the civilian protection mission will as well," she said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on U.S. television the United States would begin reducing the military forces it had committed to the Libya mission "beginning this week or within the next week or so."
Both Clinton and Gates raised the possibility that Muammar Gaddafi's regime could splinter and said the London conference would discuss political strategies to end his 41-year rule.
FRENCH, TURKISH DIFFERENCES
French President Nicholas Sarkozy has said France wants the alliance's command and control "machinery" used to coordinate the air campaign, while political control rests in the hands of the members of the coalition.
Turkey has wanted to be able to use its NATO veto to limit allied operations against Libya's infrastructure and avoid casualties among Muslim civilians.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters on Thursday Turkey's fears had been addressed and command of military operations would be transferred completely to NATO.
But a Turkish foreign ministry official said on Friday Turkey wanted to be part of the steering group expected to be set up in London and have a role in political decision-making.
Turkey's minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bagis, told reporters at the Brussels Forum conference on Sunday that discussion on NATO's future role was ongoing, adding: "Turkey is entitled to express her views and help shape policies."
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu are both expected to attend the London meeting and Daniel Keohane of the European Institute for Security Studies said Turkey would want to ensure in any NATO agreement that it can exert some control over how a NATO mission picks its targets.
British Defense Minister Liam Fox told the BBC that if a political agreement was reached, it would see NATO take over military operations in coming days.
"(It) doesn't actually mean that NATO will take over immediately. There's an execution directive ... if that's successful tonight, over the next few days NATO will take complete command."
The NATO official said a handover to NATO command would take 48-72 hours.
NATO has said its no-fly zone in Libya, which it agreed to enforce on Thursday, would be "impartial," and would ban flights both by Gaddafi's forces and his opponents, as would NATO enforcement on an arms embargo.
Keohane said that with rebel forces advancing, problems could arise if they closed in on Tripoli as fighting there could result in large numbers of casualties and there would be an increased risk of civilian casualties from any air strikes.
"And if rebel forces were seen to be seeking revenge on Gaddafi supporters, it could cause huge political problems for the alliance," he said, "because the U.N. mandate to protect civilians should apply across the board."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)