TAMPA — A lot was left unsaid Friday as the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East relinquished his post in a sunlit ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base.
Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, the chief of U.S. Central Command, abruptly announced his resignation two weeks ago — a move that was widely seen as evidence of a rift between him and President Bush over Middle East military strategy. Analysts say the last straw may have been an Esquire magazine article portraying Fallon as possibly being the only thing standing between Bush and war with Iran.
That all remained unspoken Friday as Fallon, 63, relinquished his command after only a year in the challenging job, a post previously held by Gens. John Abizaid and Tommy Franks.
Fallon publicly praised Bush for his "unfailing courage and determination to get the job done." And Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Tampa to praise Fallon for his leadership.
Still, military analysts say the resignation is unprecedented for CentCom, the MacDill-based nerve center of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military leaders rarely resign in wartime, and the normal rotation at CentCom can approach four years.
Fallon, who oversaw the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, thanked the soldiers on the front lines for their "blood, sweat and tears" before handing over the reins to his top deputy — Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will be interim commander until Bush nominates and the Senate confirms a successor.
For the time being, Dempsey inherits a war in Iraq that recently passed the milestones of five years and 4,000 Americans dead. Just on Friday, the president said the situation there remains dangerous and fragile.
Friday's change of command took place on sunny ceremonial grounds with Hillsborough Bay and the Port of Tampa in the background, in front of several hundred people in uniform.
It seemed a world away from the feuding factions of Iraq, where U.S. pilots were conducting airstrikes Friday in Baghdad and Basra to aid Iraqi forces fighting heavily armed Shiite militias.
But for CentCom's commanders, it wasn't that far away at all.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the MacDill crowd that Fallon and his wife have "a son who is literally flying missions over Iraq as we speak."
As for Dempsey, he led the 1st Armored Division as it battled insurgents in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, and two of his children have been deployed to Iraq.
As the ceremony went on, the military brass repeatedly expressed their admiration for the troops in the field.
"Many of their stories will probably be lost in time," said the white-haired Fallon, who had this to say about their performance: "It is, as the kids say, awesome."
Gates said the United States has made "great progress on a number of fronts" in the war, reducing attacks on troops and civilians and keeping insurgents on the run, "despite ongoing violence and despite the reality that … there will be hard days ahead."
Esquire's recent profile of Fallon portrayed him as "brazenly challenging" Bush on Iran, pushing back "against what he saw as an ill-advised action."
Written by a former Naval War College professor, the article predicted that if Fallon left his post at CentCom, "it may well mean that the president and vice president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don't want a commander standing in their way."
In the aftermath of the article, Fallon denied any friction but said the publicity made his continuing in the post untenable.
At the end of Friday's hourlong ceremony, the new commander, Dempsey, kept his remarks short: "Let's get back to work and see if we can make life a little better for our friends and more difficult for our enemies."
Mike Brassfield can be reached
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