The fragile international coalition supporting military action in Libya showed fresh signs of strain Monday, as the United States, Europe and Arab nations wrestled with the issue of who will take charge of military operations if the United States gives up control in the days ahead.
At the same time, the action in Libya, now in its third day, provoked harsh new condemnation from Russia and China, which had abstained in U.N. Security Council voting authorizing military measures to protect civilians from dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In the battle, coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night Monday, targeting Ghadafi's forces and air defenses and handing momentum back to the rebels, who had been on the verge of defeat.
But the rebellion's more organized military units still were not ready, and the opposition disarray underscored U.S. warnings about a long stalemate.
The continuing political furor over the Libya intervention raised questions about the depth of support for the mission and what might happen in the event of setbacks or a stalemate between Gadhafi and the rebels.
President Obama said Monday that the United States, which has been coordinating allied airstrikes, will transfer control of the mission within days and that the NATO alliance would have a role.
In a letter Monday to Congress, Obama said U.S. airstrikes "will be limited in their nature, duration and scope."
"We will seek a rapid, but responsible, transition of operations to coalition, regional or international organizations," he said.
But discussions at NATO over the alliance's role have run into opposition from key members uneasy with a NATO imprint on the mission. And the Arab League, whose political support for Western intervention in Libya is considered crucial, also doesn't want it to be a NATO mission, according to diplomats who requested anonymity.
The Libya mission is shaping up as one of the most remarkable in recent memory. Not only is the United States eager to cede the lead to others, but command arrangements also are being worked out while the initial stage of the operation is still under way.
"If this goes south, if it doesn't succeed quickly, then [U.S. forces] are going to have to assume a much broader responsibility for what to do next," said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
While the 22-member Arab League earlier this month endorsed a no-fly zone over Libya, only two Arab countries, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are publicly known to be contributing military assets -- U.S. F-16s and French-made Mirage warplanes.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin blasted the military action in Libya, saying that the Security Council resolution "resembles medieval calls for crusades," Reuters reported.
Congressional critics included Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is widely respected for his understanding of foreign policy and has often sided with the administration.
"There needs to be a plan about what happens after Gadhafi," Lugar said. "Who will be in charge then, and who pays for this all? President Obama, so far, has only expressed vague hopes."
Members of the House from Western New York expressed deep reservations Monday about the Libya mission.
Democrats Brian Higgins of Buffalo and Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport both indicated they thought U.S. involvement in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya was inevitable.
"I think the president is playing this right" by allowing other nations to provide the effort's public face in a multilateral effort, said Higgins, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Slaughter said that "when the Arab League and the United Nations decided to move forward with a no-fly zone over Libya, the United States didn't have much option left."
Still, both had concerns. "We may have entered this without a clearly defined goal," Higgins said. "We don't even know for certain who we're supporting."
"You could end up with a regime that's even worse than that of Moammar Gadhafi,"
And while Higgins said he was glad the U.S. did not act alone, he added, "In the end, we disproportionately do the fighting and dying and paying for" such efforts.
With American forces already engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Slaughter said, "I am concerned about the United States entering another war as our men and women in uniform are already serving bravely but stretched close to the limit, which is why I hope we will be able to extradite our forces quickly."
She also objected to the failure to consult Congress on committing American troops to the Libya effort.
Republican Tom Reed of Corning said, "I'm concerned that the president hasn't clearly identified the mission we're engaging in there."
While the U.N. mission is aimed at protecting civilians, Reed said he was unsure whether regime change or something else was the ultimate goal. "What is the end scenario here?" he added. "That's a serious question that needs to be answered by the president."
In contrast, New York's two senators, both Democrats, were less critical of the U.S. mission.
"The limited plan offered by the president, particularly given its multilateral and Arab League support, makes sense," Sen. Charles E. Schumer said. "We should be very careful, however, about escalation and future steps. This action should have limits, particularly with regard to ground troops."
"The Libyan people are facing a humanitarian crisis caused by a ruthless dictator massacring his own people," Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand. "The president has been clear, this is a limited action in coordination with a broad coalition of allies, including those in the Arab world, who have asked for help in protecting civilians."
If the killing continues, the White House and its allies could face growing pressure to expand the military operation against Gadhafi -- by expanding the list of targets struck from the air, by arming the rebels whom the United States admits it know little about, or by explicitly going after Gadhafi in an effort to drive him from power.
In a related development Monday, four New York Times journalists crossed the border into Tunisia after their release by Libyan authorities who had held them captive for six days, the newspaper said.
Reporter Anthony Shadid, photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario and videographer Stephen Farrell left Libya at the dusty border crossing into Tunisia that has been used by tens of thousands of people fleeing violence.
Turkey, acting on a U.S. request, played the pivotal role in getting the journalists freed and transferred to Tunisia, said Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to the United States.
New Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.