WASHINGTON — The military mission in Libya is largely complete, and NATO's involvement could begin to wrap up as soon as this 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 in the 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.
NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, agreed on Sept. 21 to extend the mission over the oil-rich North African nation for another 90 days, but officials have said the decision would be reviewed periodically.
Ham said Libya's National Transitional Council and its forces should be in "reasonable control" of population centers before the end of the NATO mission, dubbed Unified Protector. 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.
U.S. intelligence and surveillance assets, such as drones, will likely stay in the region to keep watch over weapons caches, to prevent the proliferation of weapons from Libya into neighboring countries.
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 United States in the early days of the bombing campaign.
The aggressive bombing runs that battered Gadhafi forces, weapons, air control and other key targets gave the revolutionary forces room to organize and push into Gadhafi strongholds. A key turning point came about a month ago when the fighters were able to seize Tripoli, effectively ending Gadhafi's rule.