Washington: If US officials are to be believed, the focus is shifting to widening a no-fly zone across the North African country while smaller-scale attacks on Libyan air defences and setting the stage for a humanitarian relief mission continue.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates and others said the US military's role will reduce in few days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles mainly by US ships and submarines off Libya's coast.

A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said the attacks thus far had reduced Libya's air defense capabilities by more than 50 per cent. 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.

Discord was evident on Monday in Europe over whether the military operation should be controlled by NATO or not. 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 UN-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 US commander, said it was possible that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi might manage to retain power.

The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for 42 years and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.
Gates said it would be a mistake to set Gaddafi's ouster as a military goal.

"I think it's pretty clear to everybody that Libya would be better off without Gaddafi. 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 Gaddafi.

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 US 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.

(Agencies)