Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  
Front Page

Bush names new spy chief with Iraq speech looming

US President George W. Bush yesterday named a new spy chief and filled a critical diplomatic vacancy as he put the last touches on a retooled Iraq strategy that critics charge may escalate the war.

Bush, expected to unveil his new plan as early as Wednesday, nominated director of national intelligence John Negroponte to be US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's deputy -- a key post vacant since July 2006.

"I have asked John Negroponte to serve in this vital position at this crucial moment," Bush said, stressing the former ambassador's responsibility to help ensure "that America speaks to the world with one voice."

And Bush announced that he had chosen vice admiral Michael McConnell, a former head of the National Security Agency, to replace Negroponte at the head of all 16 US spy agencies, officials said.

"Mike will report directly to me. And I am confident he will give me the best information and analysis that America's intelligence community can provide," the US president said.

The reshuffle -- begun when he dumped defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld after opposition Democrats captured the US Congress in November elections -- came days before Bush was to reveal his plans for the unpopular war in Iraq.

"It is vital they take up their new responsibilities promptly," Bush said in a message aimed at shaping their Senate confirmation. "I would hope that they would be confirmed as quickly as possible."

The embattled US president, his job approval numbers in the cellar, was to unveil his new Iraq approach as early as Wednesday, after consultations with key world leaders and US lawmakers, the White House said.

The president has left untouched his other core national security aides -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley -- leaving doubts about how far-reaching his Iraq overhaul would be.

In addition to shifting Negroponte -- the first US ambassador to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq -- Bush was to nominate the current US ambassador there, Zalmay Khalilzad, to be US ambassador to the United Nations, a top aide said.

That announcement, filling another key vacancy left by controversial diplomat John Bolton's recent departure, was expected to be announced on Friday.

Replacing Khalilzad in Baghdad would be Ryan Crocker, 57, the US ambassador in Pakistan since November 2004. Crocker is one of the State Department's most experienced Middle East experts and a fluent Arabic speaker.

On the military side, Bush was to change the head of the US Central Command and the top US military commander in Iraq, both of whom have expressed skepticism about escalating the war, US media reported.

Admiral William Fallon, currently head of US forces in the Pacific, would replace retiring General John Abizaid, 55, at the Central Command, which manages the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Iraq, Lieutenant General David Petraeus would replace General George Casey as the man in charge of all US and coalition forces, according to the reports, which went unchallenged by the White House.

On Thursday, Bush did not directly address a wave of media reports that he plans to boost the US troop level in Iraq, but stressed, "One thing is for certain: I will want to make sure that the mission is clear and specific and can be accomplished." Bush, who held a nearly two-hour videoconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday, said that the Iraqi leader "has the will necessary to make the tough decisions. That's one of the things I learned today."

But The Washington Post reported Friday that the US president's top aides are still deeply divided over Maliki's reliability and over whether to escalate the war by sending more US troops to Iraq.

The advisers fear Maliki's government may not provide the military support and implement the political reforms necessary for US forces to eventually withdraw, the Post reported, citing officials familiar with the debate.