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US Middle East Command Changes as Part of New Iraq Strategy


A U.S. Navy admiral took command Friday of the part of the U.S. military that is fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and conducting other operations throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

In an aircraft hangar adorned with flags and honor guards, and with a military band playing, General John Abizaid passed the flag of command to Admiral William Fallon. Several dozen military representatives of U.S. coalition partners were among the crowd of several hundred at the ceremony, hosted by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The change of command is part of President Bush's effort to change strategy in Iraq. General Abizaid, who had been in his job nearly four years, was highly respected, but he also became associated with policies blamed for the last year of violence in Iraq. He opposed plans to send more U.S. troops to the country, which President Bush decided to do. After praising the Arabic-speaking General as a "soldier, scholar and patriot," Secretary Gates made reference to the problems in Iraq.

"In all of these efforts, I'm sure General Abizaid would agree that not everything has gone as planned, as expected or as hoped. This is the nature of war," he said.

Gates said Abizaid had popularized the phrase "Long War" to describe the struggle against terrorism, and in his remarks the general referred to that concept.

"War is never easy or pretty, nor easily resolved. We will need both courage and time to withstand the impatience and dissatisfaction that could cause us to fail, despite our great abilities, to succeed," he said.

General Abizaid, who retired on Friday, said he has no doubt the United States will succeed in spite of the challenges of terrorism and the impatience of the American people.

Secretary Gates struck a similar theme, saying there is no escaping the debate about the Iraq war, but that debate is not the same as weakness. "One thing should be clear to our allies, to the young men and women in uniform giving everything of themselves in this fight and to our adversaries looking for weakness in our resolve, the United States will continue to stand by our allies in the Middle East and Central Asia. We will fulfill our strategic commitments made by administrations of both parties stretching back over many decades," he said.

Secretary Gates said he recommended Admiral Fallon for the Central Command job because he is effective at building relationships, has a reputation for innovation and will bring "fresh insight" to the region. The admiral, who has been the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific and Asia for the last two years, told the crowd he does intend to focus on building relationships with the leaders and the people in his new region.

"Fundamentally, the vast majority of people in this world truly desire peace, stability and security for themselves, their families, their neighbors. They just want an opportunity to live lives, to make something of themselves, to be able to achieve things and to take care of their families. We aim to help them do that," he said.

Admiral Fallon called the situation in Iraq "critical" and said "time is of the essence."

Shortly after the ceremony, the admiral convened a meeting of coalition military officers. An aide said he will make his first visit to the Middle East in his new role next week.