CAIRO — Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged Wednesday that there is no clear end to the international military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, and says no one was ever under any illusion that the assault would last just two or three weeks.
He added that the U.S. could turn over control of the operation as soon as Saturday, but could not say how the coalition operation might be resolved.
"I think there are any number of possible outcomes here and no one is in a position to predict them," Gates told reporters in Egypt, where a largely non-violent rebellion ousted an autocratic ruler within a few weeks earlier this year. One possibility, he said, is that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi could see more major defections from within his ruling circle or more divisions within his family.
Gates was an early skeptic of the plan to set up a no-fly zone, cautioning that it would require an attack on Libya. He has since said that President Barack Obama's decision to involve the U.S. in the operation got unanimous support from the U.S. national security team.
When pressed on Wednesday, Gates said the goals for the mission are clear: the establishment of a no-fly zone and preventing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people. But he had no answer when asked about a possible stalemate if Gadhafi hunkers down, and the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the assault does not approve targeting him.
Sensitive to criticism of the U.S leading another war in a Muslim nation, the Obama administration has been adamant that America will relinquish control of the Libya bombing operation quickly. Gates initially said Sunday the U.S. would have the lead for only about a week — putting the end date at Saturday. But he later couched his reply a bit, saying he didn't want to get pinned down to an exact day.
Asked about U.S. support for the rebels, Gates said that it's hard to assess their capabilities because the fighting has been scattered in towns across the country. Now that the no-fly zone is largely in place, he said some of the opposition that went into hiding when Gadhafi was launching attacks against them may now return to the fight.
The beginning of a transition from U.S. control was emerging Wednesday as NATO warships started patrolling off the coast of Libya to enforce the arms embargo. So far, officials said, they have offers for up to 16 ships to patrol the Mediterranean Sea in that area.
"I have said that America's part in this operation will begin to recede," Gates said. "We took on primary responsibility but not exclusive responsibility for suppressing the air defenses and we look forward to turning over primary responsibility for sustaining the no-fly zone to coalition partners."
Gates also flatly dismissed comparisons of the Libya attacks to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where nearly 50,000 American troops are still deployed more than seven years later. The Libyan action, he said, came at the request of Arab nations and was then authorized by the U.N. Security Council. A key difference, he added, is that Obama has vowed there will be no U.S. ground troops in Libya.