U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said that the U.S. expects to turn control of the Libya military mission over to a coalition probably headed either by the French and British or by NATO “in a matter of days.”

In his first public remarks since the start of the bombings, Mr. Gates said President Barack Obama felt very strongly about limiting America’s role in the operation, adding that the President is “more aware than almost anybody of the stress on the military.”

“We agreed to use our unique capabilities and the breadth of those capabilities at the front of this process, and then we expected in a matter of days to be able to turn over the primary responsibility to others,” Mr. Gates told reporters travelling with him to Russia. “We will continue to support the coalition, we will be a member of the coalition, we will have a military role in the coalition, but we will not have the preeminent role.”

The two key possibilities, he said, are a combined British-French command or the use of a NATO command. He acknowledged there is “some sensitivity on the part of the Arab League to being seen to be operating under a NATO umbrella.”

Mr. Gates’ comments came as American ships and aircraft continued to pound Libya, taking out key radar, communications and surface-to-air missile sites along its Mediterranean coast. Even as his military was under siege, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi vowed to endure through a long war against what he called colonial crusader aggression by the international coalition.

The Pentagon chief had cautioned early on about getting involved in Libya’s civil war, telling Congress that taking out Libya’s air defenses was tantamount to war. Others have worried that the mission could put the U.S. on a path to deeper military involvement in yet another Muslim country, even as nearly 150,000 troops continue to battle in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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