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Vice Admiral James Metzger, an assistant to the chairman of the American joint chiefs of staff, has been assigned the delicate job of American liaison to the Israel Defense Forces during a possible U.S. offensive against Iraq, sources in Washington said yesterday.

Metzger, an aide to Air Force General Richard Myers, will work from his Pentagon office, but could be sent to Tel Aviv to make sure that any possible IDF operation does not interfere with American operations.

A spokesman for the Pentagon said yesterday that "as you know, the president of the United States has not yet decided to take military action, and if he should, we wouldn't mention the movements of flag officers for security reasons."

Metzger, 53, of Baltimore, is a graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. A submarine officer, he has held command positions in various arenas, including the eastern Mediterranean, and is an experienced staff officer. He took up his position in July after two years as commander of the Seventh Fleet, which is stationed in the Pacific. After the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 and the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington, terrorism became one of the top items on Metzger's agenda as commander of that fleet.

One of his jobs now is to integrate the Pentagon into homeland defense in the United States. The role of assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs is particularly important, since it requires close contact with the chairman and focuses on political-military affairs and international relations. The assistant, a three-star general or admiral (the equivalent of an Israeli lieutenant general, which is the rank given the IDF chief of staff), often accompanies the president or the secretary of state on important political journeys and is considered a likely candidate for further promotion to the highest ranks of the U.S. armed forces. Myers, for example, was the assistant from 1997-1999, under John Shalikashvili, who served prior to that appointment as assistant to then chairman Colin Powell.

Metzger's appointment signifies the critical importance the Americans attach to the position of liaison with the IDF in the event of an American strike on Iraq. His IDF counterpart for coordination with the U.S. armed forces is currently Major General Giora Eiland, but if Metzger is sent to Israel, it will presumably mean that an American operation is imminent, in which case his counterpart would become Major General Dan Harel, head of the IDF's Operations Directorate.