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. Commander's departure spotlights US divisions

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) March 12, 2008
A top US commander's abrupt departure has laid bare sharp internal divisions over both Iraq and Iran as President George W. Bush enters his final months in office.

Admiral William Fallon, the head of the US Central Command, announced Tuesday he was stepping down a year before his assignment ends because he felt he could no longer be effective.

The White House vehemently denied Wednesday that differences over Iran cost Fallon his job, or that it is intent on war with Iran.

"There's no one in the administration that is suggesting anything other than a diplomatic approach to Iran," spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

But it was the second time in recent months that US policy toward Iran has been at the center of a conflict pitting the White House against career professionals.

A US intelligence assessment in December that found that Iran had halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 ignited a firestorm of criticism from prominent neo-conservatives and was seen as undercutting any move toward war.

The reason Fallon gave for stepping down were press reports that he said had created the perception that he opposed the president's policy objectives -- something he denied.

His area of responsibility encompasses bubbling hot spots in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but over the past six months Fallon has taken a noticeably softer line on Iran than the White House.

He also was initially skeptical about the surge of troops in Iraq, and was concerned that the focus on Iraq had caused the United States to take its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, which has seen a resurgence of Taliban violence.

Bush, in contrast, had staked out a more aggressive line on Iran and embraced the surge in Iraq championed by General David Petraeus, who reports to Fallon but has had a direct line to the White House.

The final straw, however, appears to have been an article in the current edition of Esquire magazine that cast Fallon as the one man standing in the way of a war with Iran.

The Esquire story had not attracted wide attention, however, until Fallon decided to announce he was stepping down, and the admiral's other comments on Iran had been noticed but had not created a major public controversy.

"I'm not saying that the Esquire story didn't contribute to the distraction, but it's more an accumulation of perceptions that have formed over many months that led him to conclude he was being less than effective, in terms of the mission his command was given," said a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Not that he had lost influence, but that he believed rightly or wrongly that these articles and the perceived differences between him and the White House were beginning now to impede and negatively effect his effectiveness," he said.

"Some of this gets to the culture of being a naval officer. There is a culture in the navy that when you believe that your ability to command is impaired or impeded, or that you're not convinced that you can continue to lead effectively, you sort of have a moral obligation to step down."

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates signalled his displeasure on Monday by pointedly refusing to comment on the Esquire article.

But on Tuesday, he said the admiral made the decision to step down "entirely on his own," adding that it was the right thing to do.

Gates told reporters he did not believe there was a significant difference between Fallon's views and those of the White House, but he said a "misperception" existed.

Petraeus meanwhile issued a statement saying he had worked closely with Fallon "and, more recently, developed a shared view on recommendations for the future."

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