President Barack Obama says U.S. command over coalition air strikes against Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi's forces will be handed over in the next few days to Washington's allies.
Obama, facing questions at home about the Libyan mission, made the announcement in El Salvador.
"We will continue to support the efforts to protect the Libyan people, but we will not be in the lead," he said. "That's what the transition that I discussed has always been designed to do."
The president said the allies should be able to announce soon that they have achieved the objective of creating a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone over Libya and protect civilians from by Qaddafi's forces.
But he cautioned that Qaddafi would present a potential threat to his people "unless he is willing to step down."
The comments came after the White House announced that Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron had agreed that NATO should play a "key role" in the command structure of efforts to enforce the no-fly zone.
NATO 'Steering Body'
NATO diplomats say an agreement is gradually emerging about how NATO would assume responsibility for maintaining the no-fly zone over Libya.
The plan is for NATO's command structure to be used for the operations under the political leadership of a "steering body."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said foreign ministers of countries taking part in military action in Libya were set to meet in the coming days to create such a body. He said it would involve foreign ministers from countries that are taking part and from the Arab League.
Some NATO members, including France and Turkey, have expressed reservations about the alliance taking the lead in the Libyan mission.
In Brussels, NATO officials said the alliance's warships will begin patrolling off Libya's coast later today to enforce the UN arms embargo on the country. The naval mission reportedly is to be commanded from NATO's operational center in Naples, Italy.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance's 28 members have completed plans to help enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone "if needed." Under Attack From ‘Fascists’
As discussions were going on who should take the leading role in the Libya mission, Qaddafi remained defiant.
A video grab showing Qaddafi saying that the no-fly zone is being run by "fascists" and "crusaders."
Addressing a crowd of supporters at his compound in Tripoli on March 22, the Libyan leader said his people were under attack from "fascists" and called on other Muslim countries to "take part in the battle against the crusaders."
"It's a new crusade, a crusade against Islam," he said. "Long live Islam everywhere!"
Western warplanes have flown more than 300 sorties over Libya and more than 160 cruise missiles have been fired in the UN-mandated mission.
As air strikes entered their fifth day, correspondents reported that explosions rocked the capital early today.
The strikes have managed to ground Qaddafi's aircraft and push back his forces from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, but the disorganized and poorly equipped rebels have failed to capitalize on the developments.
The rebels have been unable to dislodge Qaddafi's forces from the key junction of Ajdabiya in the east, while government tanks continue shelling the last big rebel hold-out of Misurata in the west.
Misurata residents say the siege is becoming increasingly desperate, with water cut off for days and food running out, and many of the wounded left untreated.
Clashes also were reported today near the rebel-held town of Zintan near the border with Tunisia, and in the town of Yafran, southwest of Tripoli.compiled from agency reports