Mon, Jan 16, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Top US commander in Iraq decides to extend mission

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

Defying expectations: General George Casey has extended his Baghdad mission despite a common opinion he would be transferred, leaving intact the current military-diplomatic team into 2007.

General George Casey is extending his assignment as the top allied commander in Iraq to a third year, senior Pentagon officials said on Friday, ensuring that the current US military-diplomatic team there remains in place well into next year.

After serving in one of the military's most arduous jobs since July 2004, Casey had widely been expected to transfer to a new assignment this summer as part of the Army's regular rotation of senior officers.

But at the request of President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Casey has agreed to stay for another year at his fortified headquarters in Baghdad, the officials said. He will continue to oversee the US military's role in assisting the formation of Iraq's newly-elected government and in training Iraqi soldiers and police to take greater responsibility for securing their country.

Senior Pentagon and White House officials said that Casey had mastered the nuances of Iraqi tribal and regional politics during in his tenure, and had developed an exceptional working relationship with Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq. These officials said they wanted to take advantage of that personal chemistry during the critical post-election period.

It has not always been the case that the top US general and civilian official in Iraq have seen eye to eye. The relationship between Casey's predecessor, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, and the former top US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was badly strained during their year together, according to officials who worked for both men during that time.

Casey also enjoys good working relations with General John Abizaid, the overall US commander in the Middle East, and with Lieutenant-General Martin Dempsey, who last summer became the top US trainer in Iraq.

Nearly two years ago, Casey was toiling in relative obscurity at the Pentagon as the Army's vice chief of staff. Pentagon officials had initially settled on a different commander for Iraq, but the political fallout from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal scuttled that plan, and Casey soon found himself on a plane to Baghdad.

Casey had served in a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996, but had no combat experience before Iraq.

As the four-star commander in Iraq, Casey has overall responsibility for the military's role in political and reconstruction issues, working closely with Khalilzad. A three-star officer, Lieutenant-General John Vines, oversees daily military operations in Iraq, consulting frequently with Casey. This month, Lieutenant-General Peter Chiarelli will succeed Vines, who is ending his year-long tour in Iraq.

Casey, a career infantryman and a former commander of the 1st Armored Division, will be overseeing an anticipated reduction in US troops in Iraq.

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