WASHINGTON — The United States turned up the pressure on quarreling NATO allies to take command of the air war in Libya on Wednesday, suggesting the U.S. could step away from its leadership role as soon as this weekend, even with the conflict's outcome in doubt.
In Congress, meanwhile, the Republican speaker of the House demanded that President Barack Obama quickly spell out the nation's precise goals in Libya. White House officials said Obama would keep updating the American people and a formal address was possible. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said order could be resolved quickly — if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi would just quit.
The U.S. threat to give up its leadership of the military efforts rang somewhat hollow, since officials said there was no absolute deadline to hand over frontline control to other countries, or for an end to all U.S. participation. Still, the administration is eager to hand off the lead role in a conflict that some of Obama's closest advisers resisted and that is raising complaints in Congress.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, himself an early skeptic American military intervention in Libya, said Obama made clear from the start of the international air campaign last Saturday that the U.S. would run it for only about a week. The assault began with a barrage of U.S. cruise missiles fired by ships and submarines in the Mediterranean and with American Stealth bomber flights — the first war initiated by a president who inherited two others.
In an exchange with reporters traveling with him in Cairo on Wednesday, Gates was asked whether his comments meant the U.S. had set a hard deadline of this Saturday for turning over command of the air operations.
"I don't want to be pinned down that closely," he replied. "But what we've been saying is that we would expect this transition to the coalition, to a different command and control arrangement, to take place within a few days and I would still stand by that."
The U.S. and its partners are struggling to overcome a key dilemma of their mission: how to halt Gadhafi's ground forces, which are now attacking urban areas, without endangering the very civilians the allies are supposed to protect.
As Obama returned to Washington from a three-nation tour of Latin America, Democrats lined up in support of his Libya approach. Congressional liberals and conservatives have criticized the president — some accusing him of acting too slowly, others saying he moved too quickly. Some have said he should have asked for Congress' approval before committing U.S. troops to combat.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that when Gadhafi started a violent crackdown on his people, Obama moved with "unprecedented speed," and when Gadhafi remained defiant, Obama worked with allies and the Arab nations. He called it a "prudent course of action for the president and for our nation."
But Republican Boehner, in a letter to the White House, said Obama still must provide a clear and robust assessment of the mission and how it will be achieved. Boehner did not call for a vote in the House on the commitment of U.S. military resources, as some lawmakers have demanded.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president that it would be "a matter of days" for the transition away from U.S. leadership.
An American Army general now oversees the campaign from Europe, and an American Navy admiral is the day-to-day commander from a floating command post off the Libyan coast.
"There is an agreement that NATO is going to play a very important role on command and control," Rhodes said, adding that details on the structure and shaping of the transition were still under discussion.
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