Fallon Steps Down As Centcom Chief

TAMPA – Adm. William J. Fallon stepped down as chief of U.S. Central Command in a ceremony Friday at MacDill Air Force Base.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised the man he chose for the post just a year ago, saying that Fallon “tackled his role with unparalleled energy, insights, ideas and diplomatic skills.”

Neither Gates nor any other official at the ceremony mentioned the reasons behind Fallon’s abrupt resignation on March 11. Fallon attributed his decision to media reports about policy differences with the Bush administration, largely over whether to go to war with Iran.

On Friday, Fallon did allude to his preference for using diplomacy when he quoted President Teddy Roosevelt’s phrase, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

During his time with Central Command, Fallon said, “we’ve tried to build a big stick.”

Fallon stepped aside for Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, deputy commander since August 2007, who will serve as acting commander until Bush appoints a permanent replacement.

“The tasks before us remain clear. We are a command at war,” Dempsey said. “We are a command on the leading edge of change.”

A ‘War Fighter’s War Fighter’

About 500 people attended the ceremony, mostly military officials stationed at MacDill. Fallon and Gates stood on a podium in front of an enormous American flag and smaller flags of the 50 U.S. states and 27 countries that are part of Central Command. Those countries stretch from Kenya to Kazakhstan, with Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan at the center.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked of his close friendship with Fallon, describing him as a “war fighter’s war fighter.”

“In my career, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Mullen said. “His leadership at Central Command and for the armed forces has really been spectacular … No one I know has led more from the front.”

Fallon’s remarks, however, were more personal as he thanked the people who have helped him over the years, singling many out by name.

He rose through the ranks because of the help of thousands of people, he said. “I was blessed to have a phenomenal cast to help me do the things I have done here.”

He praised everyone from President Bush to the “real people to whom we owe so much in this country and world.” And he thanked his wife, Mary, for “many decades of phenomenal support, good advice, friendship and love.”

Fallon, 63, who flew combat missions in Vietnam under the call sign “Fox,” is retiring in May with the unusual distinction of having held four four-star positions, including chief of U.S. Pacific Command.

“When I recommended Admiral Fallon for this position,” Gates said, “I told the president that the nation would benefit from one of the military’s most experienced officers and one of its best strategic minds in one of the world’s most complex regions.”

“I had to work really hard to persuade ‘Fox’ to take this job. … He even worried that he was too old to start fresh a new command. Since I’m older than he is, that didn’t cut much ice.” Gates is 64.

A recent article in Esquire magazine noted comments Fallon made to the Arab television station Al-Jazeera last year. He reportedly said the “drumbeat of conflict” from Washington directed at Iran and Iraq was disruptive.

In announcing his retirement earlier this month, Fallon said: “Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president’s policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the Centcom region. And although I don’t believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy … the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America’s interests there.”

Seen As Being At Odds With Petraeus

One of Fallon’s final acts was to advise Bush and Gates on how to proceed in Iraq after July, when the last of the troop reinforcements that Bush ordered in 2007 are to have returned home. At points during his 13 months in charge at Central Command, Fallon was perceived as being at odds with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, on how soon to end the troop surge.

His temporary replacement, Dempsey has extensive experience in Iraq. He earned high marks as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003-04. For nearly two years prior to taking the Central Command job, he served in Baghdad as head of the command that is training and equipping Iraqi security forces.

Bush is not expected to nominate a successor to Fallon until after Petraeus reports to Congress on April 8-9 on his assessment of conditions in Iraq and his recommendations for how to proceed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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