WASHINGTON — The Navy admiral in charge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan announced Tuesday that he is resigning over press reports portraying him as opposed to President Bush's Iran policy.
Adm. William J. Fallon, one of the most experienced officers in the U.S. military, said the reports were wrong but had become a distraction hampering his efforts in the Middle East. Fallon's area of responsibility includes Iran and stretches from Central Asia across the Middle East to the Horn of Africa.
"I don't believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility," Fallon said, and he regretted "the simple perception that there is." He was in Iraq when he made the statement.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Pentagon news conference that he accepted Fallon's request to resign and retire from the Navy, agreeing that the Iran issue had become a distraction. But Gates said repeatedly that he believed talk of Fallon opposing Bush on Iran was mistaken.
"I don't think that there really were differences at all," Gates said, adding that Fallon was not pressured to leave.
"He told me that, quote, 'The current embarrassing situation, public perception of differences between my views and administration policy, and the distraction this causes from the mission make this the right thing to do,' unquote," Gates told reporters.
Fallon was the subject of an article published last week in Esquire magazine that portrayed him as at odds with a president eager to go to war with Iran. Titled "The Man Between War and Peace," it described Fallon as a lone voice against taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
Gates said he did not think it was that article alone that prompted Fallon to quit. Rather, Gates thought it was "a cumulative kind of thing" that he and Fallon had failed to put "behind us."
It is highly unusual for a senior commander to resign in wartime. Fallon took the post on March 16, 2007, succeeding Army Gen. John Abizaid, who retired after nearly four years in the job. Fallon was part of a new team of senior officials, including Gates, chosen by Bush to implement a revised Iraq war policy.
Fallon's departure, effective March 31, is unlikely to have an immediate effect on conducting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. His top deputy at Central Command, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, will take his place until a permanent successor is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Gen. David Petraeus, who runs the Iraq war from Baghdad but is technically subordinate to Fallon, was known to have differences with Fallon over the timing and pace of drawing down U.S. troops from Iraq. Fallon has favored a faster pullback.
Petraeus issued a statement lauding Fallon's service. "Over the past year, he and I worked closely together as we charted a new course in Iraq and, more recently, developed a shared view on recommendations for the future," Petraeus said.
Petraeus might be considered a candidate to succeed Fallon, although Gates said recently that Bush had made it clear to him that he wanted to keep Petraeus in Iraq until late this year. Petraeus is likely to get a second four-star assignment, and some believe it might be as the top U.S. commander in Europe.
Some Democrats in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, seized on Fallon's resignation to assert that it reflected an effort by the Bush administration to stifle dissenting opinion.
"I am concerned that the resignation of Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and a military leader with more than three decades of command experience, is yet another example that independence and the frank, open airing of experts' views are not welcomed in this administration," Reid said.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the White House played no role in Fallon's move.
"People should not misconstrue this as the price to be paid for speaking out within the Pentagon," Morrell said. "This is not indicative of a hostile environment toward free thinking. This is indicative of what sadly became a perception problem that dogged Admiral Fallon _ this perception that he was in a different place than the president and the administration when it came to Iran."
President Bush praised Fallon in a statement. "During his tenure at Centcom, Admiral Fallon's job has been to help ensure that America's military forces are ready to meet the threats of an often-troubled region of the world, and he deserves considerable credit for progress that has been made there, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan," Bush said.
Gates dismissed as "ridiculous" any notion that Fallon's departure signals the United States is planning to go to war with Iran. Pressed on that point, he said, "As I say, the notion that this decision portends anything in terms of a change in Iran policy is, to quote myself, ridiculous."
Morrell said it was too early to speculate on a successor to Fallon, who was a surprise choice for the job when Gates selected him on Jan. 5, 2007, calling him a great strategic thinker and innovator. The post had never before been held by a Navy admiral.
Dempsey could be elevated to Central Command chief, although he already has been selected to head U.S. Army Europe. Another possible candidates for the Central Command post _ considered one of the most important in the U.S. military _ is Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who had just been named to a top post on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and who had been commander of U.S. special operations forces in Iraq.
Another possibility is Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who serves as Gates' senior military assistant and is a former senior commander in Iraq.
Fallon, 63, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a former vice chief of naval operations, has had a 41-year Navy career. He received his commission through the Navy ROTC program at Villanova University in 1967. Before taking the Central Command job he was commander of U.S. Pacific Command.