TAMPA -- Any effort to legislate a deadline for US withdrawal from Iraq will "make it difficult if not impossible" for military commanders to do their mission, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
Both the Pentagon and the Iraqi government have gotten the message that Congress is losing patience with the war, said Gates, speaking to reporters as he flew back to Washington, D.C., from a ceremony installing the new US commander for the Middle East.
It's clear, he said, "that there's a great deal of impatience to see progress. Congress doesn't want to see an open-ended conflict," Gates said, "If the intention was to send a message, that message has been received -- not just by us . . . but by the Iraqis."
Gates flew to Tampa for a change-of-command ceremony where Navy Admiral William Fallon was installed as the new head of US Central Command. His new assignment puts Fallon in charge of American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The situation in Iraq is critical, and time is of the essence," Fallon declared.
In his remarks at the ceremony, Gates said the United States is dedicated to strengthening its commitments in the region, "and we will do all in our power to protect and defend our homeland."
He spoke before 600 top military commanders, guests, and rank-and-file service members crowded into the hangar at MacDill Air Force Base for Fallon's installation ceremony.
Fallon, 62, replaced General John Abizaid, who had led Central Command since 2003 but is leaving in President Bush's reshuffling of Mideast military commanders .
Besides Iraq, Fallon will also oversee the war in Afghanistan, where Gates is pushing for a coalition offensive to counter the anticipated increase in Taliban attacks as the weather warms this spring. The United States has already increased forces there.
"I am sure that General Abizaid would agree that not everything has gone as planned, as expected, or as hoped," Gates said. "This is the nature of war."
He said Abizaid realized early on that the fight against extremism "would be a long and difficult endeavor."
Abizaid repeated a warning that America is fighting an evil ideology in a long war that is much bigger than just Iraq and Afghanistan. "War is never easy, nor pretty, nor easily resolved," he said.
Fallon takes over the job in the midst of a raging congressional debate over the administration's strategy in Iraq, even as more US troops pour into Baghdad as part of Bush's plan to bring security and stability to the country.
"Much work is in front of us," Fallon said after accepting the flag of command from Abizaid.
The change in command occurred a day after a Democratic-led House committee, on a largely party-line vote, approved legislation containing a Sept. 1, 2008, deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.