The military mission in Libya is largely complete and NATO's involvement could begin to wrap up as soon as next week after allied leaders meet in Brussels, according to the top U.S. commander for Africa.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press that American military leaders are expected to give NATO ministers their assessment of the situation during meetings late next week.
NATO could decide to end the mission even though ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi is still at large and his forces are still entrenched in strongholds such as Sirte and Bani Walid.
Just last week, NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, agreed to extend the mission over the oil-rich North African nation for another 90 days, but officials have said the decision would be periodically reviewed.
Ham said that the National Transitional Council and its forces should be in "reasonable control" of population centres before the end of the NATO mission, dubbed Unified Protector. And he said they are close to that now.
When NATO makes its decision, Ham said he believes there would be a seamless transition of control over the air and maritime operations to U.S. Africa Command. And, at least initially, some of the military surveillance coverage would remain in place.
"We don't want to go from what's there now to zero overnight," Ham said. "There will be some missions that will need to be sustained for some period of time, if for no other reason than to offer assurances to the interim government for things like border security, until such time that they are ready to do all that themselves."
Airstrikes likely to end
U.S. intelligence and surveillance assets, such as drones, will likely stay in the region also to keep watch over weapons caches, to prevent the proliferation of weapons from Libya into neighbouring countries.
Battle for Sirte
Hundreds of cars carrying Sirte residents formed long lines at revolutionary forces' checkpoints leading out of the city Saturday, calmly waiting to be checked by the fighters as explosions echoed in the distance and NATO planes circled overhead. Revolutionary forces said on Friday that families inside the city have two days to leave.
Many of those fleeing Sirte said conditions in the city continue to deteriorate, with food in short supply and no water or electricity.
After weeks of fighting Gadhafi's loyalists inside Sirte, the fighters now hold positions about five kilometres from the city centre, said commander Mustafa al-Rubaie.
Sirte's airport and military base are under the control of anti-Gadhafi forces. However, heavy battles are continuing as Gadhafi forces are in control of strategic positions inside the city, including high-rise buildings where snipers are positioned.
But Ham said airstrikes would likely end, unless specifically requested by the Libyan transitional government.
NATO took over command of the mission in March, after it was initially led by the U.S. in the early days of the bombing campaign.
Canada has flown numerous air missions over Libya and provided sea support as part of the NATO mission. In addition there are Canadian Forces members on the ground, though not engaged in fighting, but to provide security for diplomats.
The mission was designed to enforce a UN resolution allowing the imposition of a no-fly zone and military action to protect Libyan civilians.
The aggressive bombing runs that battered Gadhafi forces, weapons, air control, and other key targets, gave the revolutionary forces the time and breathing room to organize and begin to push into regime strongholds. A key turning point came about a month ago when the fighters were able to seize the capital, Tripoli, effectively ending Gadhafi's rule.
Now, the National Transitional Council has taken over the leadership of the nation and is promising to set up its new interim government, even as it continues to fight forces still loyal to the fugitive leader.
Ham said NATO need not wait until Gadhafi is found and forced out of the country before ending the Libyan mission.
"The fact that he is still at large some place is really more a matter for the Libyans than it is for anybody else," said Ham, adding that U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders made it clear that the object of the mission was about protecting the people, not killing Gadhafi.
Ham added he doesn't see a major U.S. role in training or other military assistance, because other Arab nations are better suited for that.
He said that the U.S. may be able to help re-establish Libya's Coast Guard and maritime domain.