tampabay.com

With passing of flag, CentCom gets new leader

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published March 17, 2007


TAMPA - The moment came not long before noon Friday as soldiers stood stiffly amid their colors. The band stopped playing patriotic tunes. Gathered dignitaries held their applause.

In a drab aircraft hangar far from the feuding factions of Iraq or the ancient clans of Afghanistan, a simple flag passed from one set of hands to another.

And so fell to Adm. William J. Fallon much of the weight of the Middle East.

Fallon, 62, a white-haired career naval man nicknamed Fox, formally assumed the job as chief of U.S. Central Command in a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base, becoming the first naval officer in CentCom's history to hold the challenging post.

With a salute, a smile and a few private words for his successor, Gen. John Abizaid stepped down as CentCom's longest-serving commander.

As a downpour outside the hangar slowed, Fallon offered a crowd of several hundred people a parting message that some might take as an appropriate metaphor about the turmoil in Iraq.

"The sun," he said, "will shine. I promise."

For Abizaid, 55, it's a walk into retirement after a storied military career that took him from the halls of the U.S. Military Academy to portrayal in a Hollywood war flick to one of the jobs of highest responsibility for a nation at war.

Abizaid came to CentCom, the MacDill-based nerve center to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2003. His Lebanese heritage, Arabic fluency and master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard made him seem perfect for the job, colleagues said.

But he leaves with Iraq as unsettled as ever and the United States embarking on a strategy of injecting more than 20,000 new troops into the war, a plan that Abizaid is thought to have opposed because it made Iraqis too reliant on Americans.

At the change-of-command ceremony, attended by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and military brass from all branches of the service, there was only brief mention of the violence in Iraq.

Instead, Abizaid and Fallon, who just stepped down as head of U.S. Pacific Command, praised American troops and wished each other well.

"War is never easy," Abizaid said. "Sometimes we Americans tend to look at all the problems in the world and take too much of our fears to heart. When you look at the people who wear the uniform of this great nation, we have nothing to fear."

Fallon said that despite the challenges in the Middle East, the nation has a lot going for it and troops are up for the challenge.

"The situation in Iraq is critical and time is of the essence," he said. "We've been entrusted with a great responsibility in this very vital region of the world."

Gates praised both men, saying, "In Iraq as well as Afghanistan we're trying to do something that's never been done before in the long history of those nations - create a government that actually serves the people.

"In all of these efforts, I am sure that Gen. Abizaid will agree that not everything has gone as planned and as expected or as hoped. This is the nature of war. John realized early on ... it would be a long and difficult endeavor. In fact, he popularized the phrase 'long war' commonly used today."

Abizaid is not granting local interviews as he retires. CentCom spokesman Matt McLaughlin said Abizaid has not revealed his retirement plans beyond telling staffers he wants "to rest, recoup and find a way to serve" the nation. The Washington Post reported Friday that a book might be in the works.

"The biggest problem we've got is lack of patience," Abizaid told the Post. "When we take upon ourselves the task of rebuilding shattered societies, we need not to be in a hurry."

And in perhaps a hint of his distrust of a larger American presence in Iraq, he said: "Insurgencies are not easily solved by foreign troops."

At the ceremony, Fallon and Abizaid, dressed in camouflaged fatigues, inspected a group of troops from all the services. The troops saluted smartly.

Finally, a CentCom flag, gathered around its pole, was passed to Abizaid by a command chief master sergeant. Abizaid turned and gave it to Gates, who then presented it to Fallon.

With that simple act, the responsibility was transferred.

It's a ritual as old as Rome, a baton of command being passed between old and new legion commanders, a symbol of the unbroken succession of command and the continuity of an army.

As Abizaid handed the reins to Fallon, he provided an understated assessment of a post Fallon will soon know well enough.

"The job has its moments," Abizaid said. "I can assure you."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or 813 226-3436.