WASHINGTON — 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 the U.N. Security Council during last week's vote authorizing military measures to protect civilians from dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blasted the military action in Libya, saying that the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military force in Libya "reminds me of a medieval call for a crusade."
However, Putin's comments brought an unusual rebuke from Russia's president and onetime Putin protege, Dmitry Medvedev. "Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations — such as 'crusade' and so on," Medvedev said.
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 prolonged stalemate between Gadhafi and antigovernment rebels.
President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States, which has been coordinating allied airstrikes on Gadhafi's air defenses and ground forces, will transfer control of the mission within days and that the NATO alliance would have a role.
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 because of the subject's sensitivity.
At NATO, several U.S. allies, including Turkey and Germany, are uneasy about the Libya operation, diplomats said. Germany abstained on Thursday's Security Council vote.
While the 22-member Arab League 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, in the form of U.S. F-16s and French-made Mirage warplanes.