The Navy admiral poised to take command of U.S. forces in the Middle East says "there's little doubt" that support for insurgents and militias killing American troops in Iraq is "coming from or through Iran" - and has to stop.
But Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, who grew up in Camden and Merchantville, played down any speculation over a possible military confrontation with Iran.
"We're not at war with Iran, and we don't have any plans for going to war with Iran," Fallon said in a telephone interview with The Inquirer as he took a 10-hour flight this week from Hawaii to meetings in the Washington area.
"What we're trying to do is figure out how we can get help and cooperation in dealing with the Iraq situation and to get Iran engaged in a dialogue with neighbors and eventually with us if the appropriate steps are taken."
Fallon described Iran as "a large player" that could play a positive role in the future of Iraq and the region.
"What's troubling, of course, to our commanders over there and to all of us is the discovery that there is [military] equipment ending up in the hands of these militias and extremists," said the 62-year-old admiral now responsible for the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after heading the U.S. Pacific Command for the last two years.
"I don't see Iran doing very much helpful in Iraq. To the contrary. This kind of materiel support is the opposite of what we need."
Fallon was confirmed last week by the U.S. Senate to head the Tampa-based Central Command and is expected to take command next month. This week, as he did "an awful lot of prepping" for his new job, the admiral expressed concerns over Iran's apparent meddling in Iraq.
"You can't, it seems to me, just isolate Iraq and put a ring around it, and say, 'We'll work this problem inside without significant attention to the outside,' " said Fallon, the first member of the Navy to lead Central Command.
Speculation over a possible attack on Iran increased this year after President Bush sent an additional aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. The United States has accused Iran of supplying Shiite militias in Iraq with weapons, money and technology for roadside bombs.
"Our president and leadership has made some pretty strong statements that ought to leave no doubt in the minds of the Iranians that we take a dim view of the actions they are apparently taking," said Fallon.
Fallon's trip this week came as the Democratic-controlled House debated a nonbinding resolution disapproving President Bush's decision to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq. The Senate also is struggling with a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop surge.
But the president Wednesday shrugged off the proposed resolutions and focused more on the funding of the war: "Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to provide them with the support they need to do their mission," he said.
This week, Fallon looked on the debate as "really their [Congress'] business. . . . There are lots of opinions, but the facts are that the president has made a number of decisions," including increasing troop strength in Iraq.
Fallon said opposition to the troop increase stemmed from the frustration and impatience felt by most leaders in Washington. "It is the American expectation, I think, that we see problems or we inherit problems, and we go fix them, and we like to do things quickly, and like to be there and get finished and get home," he said.
". . . I believe we can be successful, that we can in fact get this country in a position where they can stand on their own and we bring our people back. But this whole initiative is about trying to set those conditions."
Fallon said the Iraqi army was making strides toward taking over security of the country but still needed help. "The effort in Baghdad is going to have to be very, very strongly helped and then eventually taken over by the Iraqis," he said. " . . . The idea you can create an instant army in two years' time and deal with some of this violence going on is really a challenge.
"I am hearing they are getting better week by week, month by month. This is one of things, you have to bear with it."
The turbulence Fallon faces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the political maelstrom in Washington are worlds apart from the admiral's idyllic family upbringing in Camden and Merchantville, where he was the oldest of nine children.
Fallon delivered newspapers, worked at Campbell Soup Co., and graduated from Camden Catholic High School and Villanova University. He continues to stay in close contact with family and friends who live in the Philadelphia area.
Even today, when the admiral looks for ways of describing Iraq, he harkens back to his boyhood days in Merchantville. "The house is on fire and we have to get the fire brigades," he said. "Back in Merchantville, we used to have a volunteer fire company, and when that alarm would go, folks would roll out of the house . . . and would fight the fire. Right now, we're going to respond to that alarm. . . . That's the first priority."