WASHINGTON — Anxious to reduce its front-line air combat role in Libya, the Obama administration pressed Thursday for allies who first pushed for the campaign to come up with a workable alternative.
U.S. officials said the leadership handoff would come within a few days — with President Barack Obama facing growing congressional misgivings — and fellow NATO countries held crisis talks about the military operation.
In Ankara, Turkey, state-run TV quoted the foreign minister as saying Turkey's objections concerning NATO's role had been met and NATO would indeed take command. No official action on such a switch was immediately announced.
The U.S. has been vague about what combat role the American military might continue to play once allies take the formal lead.
American and allied planes and ships pummeled Libyan air defenses and other military targets Thursday as the international alliance confronting Moammar Gadhafi moved toward shifting its command lead from Washington to NATO.
U.S. officials avoid describing the operation as a war. White house press secretary Jay Carney said it was "a time-limited, scope-limited military action."
Uncertainty also hung over the domestic politics of U.S. handling of an air campaign that is being executed by a coalition of countries, including Canada and several European allies, under a U.N. Security Council mandate.
Critics have questioned the purpose and cost of U.S. military involvement, as well as the legality of Obama acting without Congress' approval.
NATO's governing North Atlantic Council was meeting in Brussels to consider a way ahead. It has been meeting for six straight days, but a series of disagreements, including whether NATO should have overall political control over the operation and how aggressive the mission should be, have so far blocked agreement.
The White House was convening its own administration talks Thursday to consider the direction of events in Libya and the future U.S. role. Officials said there was no absolute deadline to hand over front-line control to other countries, or for an end to all U.S. participation. Still, with the costs of the campaign growing by the day and members of Congress raising complaints over the goals in Libya, the administration wants its allies to take the lead soon.
"We are still operating under that timeline, that it will be days, not weeks," Carney said.
Obama has said the U.S. will continue to provide certain noncombat help that others cannot — particularly intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities, as well as aerial refueling of allies' warplanes.
But it was unclear whether American jets would join in combat air patrols to enforce a no-fly zone or to strike at ground targets.
Up to now the U.S has played the dominant role.
Between Tuesday and Wednesday, there were 175 air missions — including noncombat flights — in the Libya operation, according to Pentagon figures. Of that total, 65 percent were flown by U.S. planes and 35 percent were flown by allied aircraft. Three days earlier, the U.S. made 87 percent of the flights compared with 13 percent by allied aircraft.
Carney disputed complaints from Congress about inadequate consultation prior to the start of the military campaign, and he discounted the need for a specific response from the White House to a letter Wednesday from House Speaker John Boehner asking for details on the goals, costs and scope of the operation.
"We have certainly endeavored to answer those questions already. I don't know of any specific response to the letter, I'm not precluding one," said Carney.
Carney said that if the president had waited for Congress to return from its recess before moving on Libya, "Gadhafi's forces would control Benghazi and there would have been a great deal of people killed in the process."
Allied officials have said Gadhafi's air force has been essentially defeated, but he remained defiant even as his forces absorbed more heavy blows against his artillery, tanks and ammunition bunkers.
The U.S. assumed command of the operation, which began on Saturday, largely because it alone possesses the military wherewithal to coordinate the complex array of movements, targeting and intelligence collection that was required to enable the establishment of a protective no-fly zone over Libya. Now that Gadhafi's air force has been grounded and his air defenses largely silenced, the mission could be pursued under a different command such as NATO.
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. An American Air Force two-star general is running the air portion of the mission, and one official said it was possible that the Air Force officer would remain in charge of the air campaign even after the overall operation was shifted to NATO or other non-U.S. command. That official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military deliberations.
To try to stop Gadhafi's forces from attacking civilians in cities and other areas where rebels are seeking his overthrow, the international coalition has established a no-fly zone over northern portions of the country. It also is trying to compel his ground forces to stand down.
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French fighter jets struck an air base deep inside Libya and destroyed one of Gadhafi's planes Thursday, and other coalition bombers struck artillery, arms depots and parked helicopters. Fourteen Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from U.S. and British ships in the Mediterranean late Wednesday and early Thursday, U.S. officials said. Their targets included Gadhafi's air defense missile sites in Tripoli and south of the capital, one official said.
Other attacks were launched against an ammunition bunker near Misrata and forces south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the officials said.