Defence chief quits Obama’s cabinet

Hagel leaves after rocky tenure and crisis prompted by rise of Isis

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned as part of the first major change to President Barack Obama’s Cabinet since his Democrats were routed in mid-term elections three weeks ago.

Hagel is leaving under pressure following a rocky tenure in which he has struggled to break through the White House’s insular team of national security advisers. His departure comes as the president’s national security team has been battered by crises including the rise of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and Russia’s provocations in Ukraine.

Obama announced the resignation at a White House event with Hagel at his side. Hagel will remain in the job until a successor is in place.

Hagel was appointed less than two years ago as Obama pushed his signature programme of winding up wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a process that is being upended this year with US re-engagement in Iraq and greater military co-operation with Kabul.

The former Republican senator, who had struggled to improve his ties with Congress after a contentious 2013 confirmation hearing, submitted his resignation letter after lengthy discussions with Obama that began in October, officials said.

“A successor will be named in short order, but Secretary Hagel will remain as Defence Secretary until his replacement is confirmed by the United States Senate,” a senior Obama administration official said.

Obama said at the White House event that Hagel had always been candid with his advice and had “always given it to me straight.”

Hagel raised questions about Obama’s strategy toward Syria in a two-page internal policy memo that leaked recently. In it, he warned that Obama’s policy was in jeopardy due to its failure to clarify its intentions toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Obama has insisted that the United States can go after Islamic State militants without addressing Assad, who the United States would like to leave power. Officials said Obama wanted fresh leadership during the final two years of his administration.

“What I can tell you is there are no policy differences in the background of this decision,” a senior US defence official said. “The secretary is not resigning in protest and he’s not being ‘fired’,” the official said.

Top potential candidates to replace Hagel include Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defence, and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defence, who were rumoured to be contenders for Hagel’s job before he was named.

Hagel, who was the only enlisted combat veteran to serve as defence secretary, ran into a wave of opposition when Obama, a Democrat, nominated him. Republicans objected because Hagel opposed the 2007 Iraq war ‘surge’ of troops, which eventually helped defeat al-Qaida

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