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US Middle East Commander Steps Down After Controversy

The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa stepped down Friday, after just a year in command, following allegations he had disagreed with the Bush Administration on some key policies. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

It was the last day in command for Admiral William Fallon, and it came several months earlier than expected. The Florida sunshine, dress uniforms and upbeat music could not mask the fact that this ceremony was not expected to happen until later in the year, or even next year. That changed when Admiral Fallon was depicted in an Esquire magazine article earlier this month as the only man standing between the United States and war with Iran.

Indeed, Admiral Fallon did say several months ago that war rhetoric from some members of the White House staff was not helpful in his effort to ease tensions in the Middle East. And he has publicly opposed some other key policies, including, initially, the surge of U.S. forces into Iraq.

But announcing Admiral Fallon's retirement after the article was published, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it was not his views, but rather his failure to put an end to the perception he had ongoing policy differences with the administration that led to his departure from one of the most important posts in the U.S. military.

At Friday's ceremony, Secretary Gates mentioned the thing that got Admiral Fallon into trouble, his candor.

"Last year, when we were discussing the way forward in Iraq, both the president and I were impressed by, and influenced by, Admiral Fallon's advice and candor," he said. "Last week, we discussed the next steps in Iraq, and again Admiral Fallon played a vital role in our discussions and analyses."

Secretary Gates did not mention Iran specifically, but did refer to Admiral Fallon's role as a sort of U.S. regional diplomat.

"The Middle East as a whole has also benefited from Admiral Fallon's leadership, as he has applied the same strategic thinking and diplomatic skills that were on display during his leadership of Pacific Command," said Secretary Gates. "We can see it in the increasing willingness of nations in the region to extend diplomatic support to Iraq, and to work together to confront shared threats."

Just before his four-star flag was lowered from a flagpole near the shore of Tampa Bay, Admiral Fallon told the gathering it is the front-line troops who should get the credit for U.S. military achievements in the Middle East.

"These are real people," he said. "These are the folks that get the job done. These are the people to whom we owe so much in this country and this world."

Admiral Fallon also praised the two men with whom he was reported to have disagreed. He called President Bush a man of "unfailing courage and determination to get the job done and to do it right." And the admiral called his subordinate, the U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus, "a brilliant officer" and "the principal instrument" of the success U.S. forces have had in Iraq during the past year.

Admiral Fallon, who has been in the Navy for nearly 41 years, will remain in uniform for several more weeks, and will officially retire in May. He has had numerous operational assignments, including commands in the Atlantic and the Persian Gulf, and with NATO naval forces. He was also commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, and as deputy chief of the Navy he was at the Pentagon when it was attacked on September 11, 2001. Admiral Fallon is one of the last active U.S. military officers to have served in Vietnam, where he flew missions in Navy combat and reconnaissance aircraft.

Admiral Fallon was replaced on a temporary basis by his deputy, Lieutenant General Martin Dempsey,who will serve until a permanent commander is nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate.