WASHINGTON— Building on what U.S. officials called a successful first stage of international military action in Libya, the focus is shifting to widening a no-fly zone across the North African country while continuing smaller-scale attacks on Libyan air defenses and setting the stage for a humanitarian relief mission.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military's role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired Saturday and Sunday mainly by U.S. ships and submarines off Libya's coast.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said Monday the attacks thus far had reduced Libya's air defense capabilities by more than 50 percent. That has enabled the coalition to focus more on extending the no-fly zone, which is now mainly over the coastal waters off Libya and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east, across the country to the Tripoli area this week. [Vote now: Should the United States establish a no-fly zone over Libya?]
Discord was evident Monday in Europe over whether the military operation should be controlled by NATO. Turkey blocked the alliance's participation, while Italy issued a veiled threat to withdraw the use of its bases unless the alliance was put in charge. Germany also questioned the wisdom of the operation, and Russia's Vladimir Putin railed against the U.N.-backed airstrikes as outside meddling "reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade."
In his first public comments on the crisis, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the lead U.S. commander, said it was possible that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi might manage to retain power.
"I don't think anyone would say that is ideal," the general said Monday, foreseeing a possible outcome that stands in contrast to President Barack Obama's declaration that Gadhafi must go. [See editorial cartoons about the uprisings in the Middle East.]
The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for 42 years and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.
In Russia for an awkwardly timed visit on other topics, Gates said it would be a mistake to set Gadhafi's ouster as a military goal.
"I think it's pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Gadhafi," he said in an interview with Interfax news agency. "That is a matter for the Libyans themselves to decide," and given the opportunity they may take it, Gates said.
Other administration officials said Washington is not interested in using military action to get rid of Gadhafi. Rather, a combination of international sanctions and other non-military actions designed to isolate Gadhafi and undermine his authority are more likely to hasten his demise, they said. [Vote Now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]
"It is not for us to present him with some kind of golden parachute after what he's done against his own people," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Rep. Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview Monday: "The goal is to be achieved in days, not weeks, without U.S. boots on the ground. As the hours go by, allied countries, Europe and the Arab countries are playing a larger role. Our role is becoming less."
Obama addressed the Libya matter while visiting Chile on Monday. He contrasted his approach in Libya, in which his administration insisted on an international military partnership, with President George W. Bush's actions in Iraq, where U.S. forces bore the bulk of the burden.
"As you know, in the past there have been times where the United States acted unilaterally or did not have full international support, and as a consequence typically it was the United States military that ended up bearing the entire burden," Obama said.