A compromise is emerging that would see NATO take a key role in the military operation in Libya guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world.
The deal is not done yet. To participate, NATO needs the approval of all 28 of its member nations, including Turkey, which has been insisting on a narrow military mandate and assurances that no occupation of Libya will ensue.
But after a busy day of diplomacy, including telephone calls from President Barack Obama to the leaders of France and Britain, broad agreement was reached for NATO to play an important role in the operation.
The compromise would solve two problems: It would give the United States, which has been coordinating the military effort but is eager to hand off those duties, an organization to hand off to. A number of European leaders have said that, other than the U.S., only NATO has the capacity, experience and staff to coordinate such an international operation.
And it would provide political cover for NATO, which some say has been tainted in the eyes of the Arab world by its participation in the war in Afghanistan.
Obama, speaking Tuesday in El Salvador, said he was confident the U.S. could hand over control of the operation within days. He said the four-day assault on Libya, which was authorized by the United Nations, had already saved the lives of civilians who would otherwise have been targeted by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"When this transition takes place it is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone. It is not going to be our ships that are necessarily enforcing the arms embargo. That's precisely what the other nations are going to do," Obama told a news conference.
With congressional critics growing vocal about the deployment of American military forces, the president defended the wisdom of the operation.
"It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes," Obama said.
Earlier Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed the creation of a wider political committee to run the operation, which would include the Arab League as well as NATO members.
"For us, the intervention is firstly an operation wanted by the United Nations. ... It is run by a coalition of member states, all of whom are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization," said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe in outlining the proposal.
"This is, therefore, not a NATO operation, even if it must be able to rely on military planning and intervention capacities of the Alliance," Juppe said.
He said the new body would bring together foreign ministers of participating states _ including Britain, France and the U.S. _ as well as several Arab nations. It is expected to meet in coming days, either in Brussels, London or Paris.
In Washington, a senior administration official said NATO would play a key role through its command and control capabilities, but that it would be part of a broader international effort. The new committee reinforces the idea that this is an international campaign that extends beyond NATO, the official said.
Under such a plan, the U.S. military would shift to a supporting role, focusing on elements such as jamming, aerial refueling and intelligence support. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to divulge confidential details of the plan.
The goal of the operation would be to protect civilians, not to force a change of government in Libya, he said.
The situation until now has appeared confused at times because of the participating countries' conflicting military goals.
While all the countries in the coalition share a political goal _ Gadhafi's removal from power _ "not everyone agrees whether this is the military aim," said Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
"Britain and France want to keep this as an option, because they see it as feasible and viable ... while the policy of the U.S. is that they are absolutely not willing to take military action to further that end," Joshi said. "They want to set a clear limit to their enmeshment, for symbolic and practical reasons."
Although it has not yet approved participating in the military operation over Libya, NATO did agree on one action Tuesday _ to have its warships begin enforcing the U.N. arms embargo. A flotilla of frigates, minesweepers and other ships already in the Mediterranean has been given the mission.
NATO is expected on Wednesday to again consider playing a role in the primary operation.
Associated Press writers Bradley S. Klapper in Washington, Jim Kuhnhenn in El Salvador and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.