SANTIAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will cede control of the assault on Libyan forces in days, President Barack Obama said on Monday, even as divisions in Europe fueled speculation U.S. leadership would be protracted.
Obama faces criticism at home over the U.S. role and goals in the U.N.-mandated aerial attacks that began on Saturday -- from charges he failed to act decisively to fears the United States will get bogged down in yet another Muslim country.
The missile strikes have already destroyed most of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s air defenses. Obama said U.S. action would be limited and its mission command would be brief.
“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. He did not spell out which nation or organization would take charge of the operation.
The humanitarian aim of the mission -- to stop Gaddafi’s forces from harming civilians during a rebellion against his four-decade rule -- is not in dispute in Washington.
But some lawmakers are angry Obama did not ask Congress to authorize the military action while others worry U.S. firepower, which dominated the early phases of the assault on Gaddafi’s military, would prove to be irreplaceable.
“I am concerned that the president has yet to clearly define for the American people what vital United States security interests he believes are currently at stake in Libya,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
Republicans, seeking to oust Obama from the White House in the 2012 election, are not united on Libya concerns. Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed concern about entanglement in the North African country when U.S. forces are engaged in costly action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama, trying to balance the Libya crisis with his domestic priorities of job creation and economic recovery, said in a letter to Congress on Monday that the “strikes will be limited in their nature, duration and scope.”
The mission, he said, was “focused on employing unique U.S. military capabilities to set the conditions for our European allies and Arab partners to carry out the measures authorized by the U.N. Security Council resolution.”
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 Gaddafi’s defiance and differences within NATO about its role in the Libya campaign have raised doubts about how quickly the United States will be able to hand off control.
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.
“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.
U.S. officials have suggested NATO could help run the operation without formally taking on the campaign.
Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, said it would be difficult to stand up a multinational command structure “on the fly.”
“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.
The Pentagon said it was keeping Libyan rebels at arm’s length 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 the U.S. commander disputed that.
“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 John O'Callaghan and Sean Maguire