US Middle East commander quits over policy on Iran

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The Independent US

The top US commander for the Middle East resigned yesterday, a step that seems to bear out reports of sharp policy differences on Iran between a hawkish White House and a uniformed military leadership opposed to military action.

The suddenness was underlined by the circumstances of the announcement – made at the Pentagon by the Defence Secretary Robert Gates, at the very moment that Admiral William Fallon, the head of US Central Command in charge of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, was on a visit to Iraq.

In a statement issued in Iraq, Admiral Fallon blamed his departure on press reports of "a disconnect" between his views and those of the President. He was referring specifically to an article in the latest issue of Esquire magazine, which suggested George Bush was exasperated by the admiral's opposition to possible military action against Iran's suspected nuclear sites.

But the Esquire piece was only the latest of many suggesting deep unease at the Pentagon at any strike over Iran. Though the likelihood of such an attack appeared to have receded with the publication last year of a National Intelligence estimate concluding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, top officials – Mr Bush and in particular Vice-President Dick Cheney, have pointedly refused to take the military option off the table.

These reports had become "a distraction at a critical time, and hamper efforts in the CentCom region," Admiral Fallon said.

Picking his words with care, he added that "I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy" in the region, leaving open the issue of the means of that policy. Even so, "the simple perception that there is [a difference] makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America's interests there."

The article, however, pulled no punches. "How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief?" it wrote in an article headlined "The Man Between War and Peace" – before answering its own question.

"The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer. President Bush is not accustomed to a subordinate who speaks his mind as freely as Fallon does," the magazine said, "and the president may have had enough." The prophecy appears to have been self fulfilling, creating a widespread belief that Admiral Fallon had been forced out.

Observers moreover noted that had there been no rift, the Admiral could have knocked down the article and continued in a job which he has held for less than a year. Instead, he chose to resign

But Mr Gates, who is believed also to oppose the use of force against Tehran, was swift to stress that the shock departure did not signal a change US policy on Iran. That idea was "ridiculous," he said.

The military's argument is simple: that, particularly after last year's troop surge in Iraq but even before, US forces were stretched almost to breaking point. An attack on Iraq would provoke Iranian retaliation in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East that the US could not cope with, and might lead to an fullscale regional conflict.

Mr Bush and Mr Cheney, on the other hand, have been clearly frustrated by the conclusions of the NIE.

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