By Alister Bull and Missy Ryan
SANTIAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will transfer control of the air assault on Libyan forces within days, President Barack Obama said on Monday, even as European divisions fueled speculation that U.S. leadership would continue.
Obama's comments reflected a U.S. desire to have others be seen to lead the U.N.-mandated campaign. It has destroyed most of Muammar Gaddafi's air defenses since it began last Saturday and is the third U.S.-led operation in a Muslim country in a decade.
"We anticipate this transition to take place in a matter of days and not in a matter of weeks," Obama told a news conference during a visit to Chile.
"NATO will be involved in a coordinating function because of the extraordinary capacity of that alliance" but details of the transfer -- when it would take place and to whom -- would be provided by U.S. military chiefs, he said.
General Carter Ham, the U.S. commander now leading the offensive, said the missile strikes had crippled Gaddafi's military prowess and set the stage for a broad no-fly zone stretching across most of northern Libya.
But as the days pass, doubts have been raised that the United States will be able to hand off control quickly, given Gaddafi's defiance and differences within NATO about the alliance's appropriate role in the Libya campaign.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the intention was to transfer command to NATO but France said Arab countries did not want the U.S.-led alliance in charge.
Rifts are also growing in the international community over the campaign, which Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared to "medieval crusades.
Although Obama has called for Gaddafi to leave, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Libyans must ultimately determine his fate for themselves.
He said the U.S. military would soon pass command of the operation to allies. "While we have had a major role in the first two or three days, I expect us very soon to recede back into a supporting role," Gates said during a visit to Russia.
'TRULY A COALITION OPERATION'
Obama distinguished between the U.N.-backed military mission, to protect Libyan rebels and open routes for humanitarian help, from the longer-term U.S. policy goal, which was to see an end to Gaddafi's four decades of rule.
The president, trying to balance the Libya crisis with his domestic priorities of jobs and economic recovery that are crucial to his chances for re-election in 2012, is facing criticism from both sides of the U.S. political spectrum.
Republican critics demand he clarify the goal of the Libya operation, saying he has done a poor job of articulating the mission to Americans. They portray it as an example of the president's failure to lead.
Some of Obama's fellow Democrats have expressed concern about entangling the United States in the North African country when its forces are already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have suggested NATO could help run the operation without formally taking on the campaign.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said it would be difficult to stand up "on the fly" a multinational command structure for an evolving operation.
"If that's what's being attempted then the handoff may take longer than the Obama administration would like," he said.
A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while the United States was hoping to hand off leadership once initial strikes conclude, it expects to continue to bear the burden for logistics and surveillance.
"It's not just a British or French face on an American operation; it's truly a coalition operation," he said.
Even as the West presses the aerial campaign, the Pentagon said it was keeping Libyan rebels at arm's length as it seeks to avoid getting mired in a messy civil conflict.
Ahmed El-Hasi, a spokesman for Libya's February 17 opposition coalition, said rebels had coordinated with foreign powers on recent air strikes.
But Ham said no "official communication" had taken place and the coalition was not providing close air support to the rebels.
"Our mission is not to support any opposition forces so ... there is no official communication or formal communication with those in this so-called opposition that are opposing the regime's ground forces," Ham told reporters at the Pentagon.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Caren Bohan and Steve Holland in Washington, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Phil Stewart in St. Petersburg; Editing by David Storey)