NATO agreed late Thursday to take over part of the military operations against Libya -- enforcement of the no-fly zone -- after days of hard bargaining among its members. But attacks on the ground will continue to be run by the coalition led by the United States, which has been anxious to give up the lead role.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who announced the agreement in Brussels, said the alliance could eventually take more responsibility, "but that decision has not been reached yet." It appeared that some NATO members balked at any involvement in attacks on ground targets, something the alliance's sole Muslim member, Turkey, has resisted.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised NATO for taking over the no-fly zone, even though the United States had hoped the alliance would take full control of the military operation authorized by the United Nations, including the protection of Libyan civilians and supporting humanitarian aid efforts on the ground. The operation cost the United States close to $1 billion in less than a week and has drawn criticism in Congress from members of both parties.
NATO said late Thursday that it expected to commence enforcement of the no-fly zone within two to three days. The operation will be commanded from Naples by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear.
NATO also agreed to launch military planning for a broader mandate, including a "no-drive" zone that would prevent Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's armor and artillery from moving against rebels his forces had been routing before the coalition's air assault began late last week. The North Atlantic Council is scheduled to meet Sunday to consider the plans.
"Without prejudging deliberations, I would expect a decision in coming days," Fogh Rasmussen said.
Diplomats also have drawn up plans to put political supervision of NATO's effort in the hands of a broader international coalition. U.S., European, and Arab and African officials have been invited to London next week to work out the details.
U.S. weapons are being used less frequently than they were when airstrikes began. French fighter jets used deep inside Libya on Thursday hit aircraft and a crossroads military base.
"Nearly all, some 75 percent of the combat air patrol missions in support of the no-fly zone, are now being executed by our coalition partners," Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney, told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon. Other countries were handling less than 10 percent of such missions Sunday, he said.
The United States will continue to fly combat missions as needed, but its role will mainly be in support missions such as refueling allied planes and providing aerial surveillance of Libya, Gortney said.
Allies have especially sought military assistance from Arab countries, seeking to avoid an all-Western military presence. Qatar is expected to begin flying air patrols this weekend, and on Thursday Clinton praised a second Arab nation, the United Arab Emirates, after it agreed to deploy 12 planes.
French strikes hit a base about 155 miles south of the Libyan coastline, as well as a Libyan combat plane that had just landed outside the strategic city of Misrata, France's military said.
Libya's air force has been effectively neutralized. Briefing reporters in Tripoli late Thursday, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said no Libyan planes have been in the air since the no-fly zone was declared.
But the rebels demanding Gadhafi's ouster after 42 years in power remain less organized and less heavily armed than Gadhafi's forces, and they have had trouble taking full advantage of the international airstrikes. A U.N. arms embargo blocks the rebels and the government from getting more weapons.