U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta pointedly declined Tuesday to say whether the Obama administration intends to seek military ties with Libya's new government, amid uncertainty about Islamist influences there after the demise of strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Asked at a news conference whether Libya should be a U.S. military partner and what such a relationship would entail, Panetta said the U.S. would take its lead from NATO, whose months-long air campaign helped Libyan rebels oust and eventually kill Gadhafi.
Panetta offered no direct clues to the administration's inclinations on establishing military-to-military relations with the North African nation.
"A lot of that at this point still rests with NATO," Panetta said, adding that the U.S.-led alliance was discussing when to end its Libya mission. He added that he understood some Libya leaders had called for NATO to continue its mission "during this interim as they try to establish some new governance."
"So I guess what I would do at this point is leave the decision as to future security involvement in the hands of NATO and then beyond that, that will give us a basis on which to determine whether there is an additional role," he said.
He said the immediate U.S. concerns in Libya are focused on the possibility of providing medical assistance to Libya's wounded and preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Of particular concern are anti-aircraft weapons.
Questions also persist about the nature of the new Libya and the degree of Islamist influence in a government now led by National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, who said Sunday that Islamic Sharia law would be the main source of legislation, that laws contradicting its tenets would be nullified, and that polygamy would be legalized.
Libya is a deeply conservative Muslim nation, with most women wearing headscarves or the all-encompassing niqab. Islamists were heavily repressed under Gadhafi and are eager to have their say, raising the prospect of a battle for influence between hardline and moderate Muslims.
During the rebel uprising, the U.S. military was a key participant in the NATO air campaign. But Washington chose not to provide training for the rebels or supply them with weapons. Some in Washington have questioned the extent of their commitment to democracy.
At his news conference with Japanese Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa, Panetta also expressed satisfaction with Japan's efforts to end a stalemate over the relocation of U.S. Marines on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.
Panetta, on his first visit to Asia as Pentagon chief, was scheduled to travel Wednesday to South Korea to meet with government leaders and talk to U.S. troops.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP