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Gen. Austin takes charge at Centcom during MacDill ceremony

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Published:   |   Updated: April 2, 2013 at 05:55 PM
TAMPA -

Standing on a stage in chilly Hangar 3 at MacDill Air Force Base, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III delivered a veiled warning to Iran during his speech accepting command of U.S. Central Command.

“The U.S. will continue to play an important role as a key partner to our friends and our allies,” said Lloyd, who assumed command from Marine Gen. James Mattis. “We will provide them with the necessary support and we will stand ready and willing to hold accountable those who threaten regional stability through their actions or through the actions of proxies.”

Lloyd takes over command of U.S. military operations in one of the world’s most volatile regions at a critical time.

The bulk of U.S. forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan next year after more than a decade of war and transition responsibility for security to Afghans. Still, Austin said, “this is not meant to signal an end to our presence or involvement in the region.”

“To the contrary, if we want to have an effective and lasting impact on that part of the world we must remain engaged and mindful of the fact that success in our various critical endeavors will require the efforts of many,” he said.

Beyond Afghanistan are other challenges. Iran has played a role in the civil war in Syria that has killed tens of thousands and threatens to enflame the region. Nuclear-armed Pakistan remains unstable and a haven for the Taliban. Iraq remains embroiled in sectarian violence that threatens to rend the nation. Yemen is a stronghold for al-Qaida.

And though not in the Centcom region, Israel and relations with its neighbors remains a critical factor in Mideast stability.

Austin was the commander on the ground when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 and he served as Army vice chief of staff. A highly praised leader, he is the first black commander of Centcom.

He takes over from a blunt-talking, widely respected Marine who was never shy in voicing his opinion as the 13th Centcom boss.

Gen. Mattis, who assumed command in August 2010 and is now retiring, said at Friday’s ceremony, “Over more than a decade of war, none of the deployments or war’s grim daily realities have lessened their sense of purpose or the infectious high spirits of the Centcom team.”

America, Mattis said, remains ready to defend itself, “a reminder to the maniacs that by attacking us on 9/11 and thinking they could scare us, we remind them that the descendents of Valley Forge don’t scare.

“I am happy to storm hell in the company of these troops who I haven’t the words sufficient to praise, so I won’t try,” said Mattis, who once lead Marines in the battle of Fallujah, Iraq.

Winding up his farewell speech, Mattis welcomed his successor “back to America’s varsity.

“Lloyd, we’ve served side by side repeatedly,” said Mattis. “I can think of no one better prepared to command Centcom and I pass to you the finest warfighting team on the earth.”

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who presided over the ceremony along with Joint Chiefs Chairman and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, noted in his speech that exactly a decade ago, both Mattis and Austin were leading troops into battle.

“Ten years ago, both Jim Mattis and Lloyd Austin were in the Iraqi desert, on opposite sides of the Euphrates River, helping lead their troops in the drive to Baghdad,” said Hagel.

“Today, these battle-tested leaders share a single stage, one having completed a distinguished command, and one ready to step into his place.”

Dempsey likened the hectic pace of commanding Centcom to the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, being held this weekend.

“Today I happened to catch on television that the Grand Prix is meeting, racing or whatever they do, in St. Petersburg,” he said. “What a perfect metaphor for what Jim Mattis has been doing and what Lloyd Austin has to do. At times it feels like careening through the streets of St. Petersburg at 150 miles an hour.”

The ceremony was held under tight security, with a list of visiting dignitaries including National Intelligence Director James Clapper, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, Afghanistan Ambassador Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, Iraq Ambassador Jabir Habib, Bahrain Ambassador Houda Ezra Nonoo, Qatar Ambassador Mohammed Bin Abdulla Al-RumaiThi and United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba.

Local VIPs included the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Adm. William McRaven; U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor and C.W. “Bill” Young; Mayor Bob Buckhorn; the executive staff of the James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital; and many veteran service organization leaders.

For Gen. Austin and his wife, Charlene, it was a familiar scene.

He served at Centcom as chief of staff to Gen. John Abizaid from September 2005 to November 2006.

“It really is wonderful to be back here in Tampa and be part of this special community,” Austin said. “I have tremendous respect for this headquarters and for the tough and important mission and so I am honored by the opportunity to return here once again to serve as the next Centcom commander.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

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