WASHINGTON — Adm. William Fallon resigned as commander of U.S. Central Command on Tuesday, blaming the distraction caused by media reports that he was fighting with administration officials over Iran policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he reluctantly accepted the resignation and emphasized that Fallon reached the decision “entirely on his own.”

“I believe it was the right thing to do, even though I don’t believe there were significant differences between his views and the administration’s,” Gates said. “We have tried to put this misperception behind us for months, but frankly have not been successful in doing so.”

Democrats seized on Fallon’s resignation as an opportunity to criticize Bush.

“Over the last seven Bush years, we’ve seen those who toe the company line get rewarded and those who speak inconvenient truths get retired,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in a written statement.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., echoed Kerry’s comment and said, “The last thing America needs is an echo chamber of top advisers, especially on all-important questions of war and peace.”

But the White House on Wednesday rejected the notion that it quashes dissenting views in the military.

White House press secretary Dana Perino called the charges of stifling dissent “nonsense.”

“The president welcomes robust and healthy debate,” she said.

Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, deputy commander of Central Command, will take over the post on March 31 in an interim role, Gates said. He did not discuss a time line to find a permanent replacement.

A likely successor to Fallon is Petraeus, defense experts told The Washington Post. The general could be promoted to the Centcom post and replaced in Baghdad by Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who until last month was Petraeus’ deputy in Iraq. Odierno, who has been nominated to become Army vice chief of staff, developed a strong working relationship with Petraeus, the Post reported.

An Esquire magazine article last week portrayed Fallon as opposed to President Bush’s Iran policy and called him the sole opponent among advisers to the White House of taking military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Fallon told The Washington Post last week that the article was “poison pen stuff” that is “really disrespectful and ugly.” He did not cite specific objections, the Post noted.

In a statement also announcing his retirement, Fallon said implications that he was sparring with administration officials have led to confusion and awkwardness in his dealings with both U.S. and foreign officials, forcing his resignation.

“Recent press reports suggesting a disconnect between my views and the president’s policy objectives have become a distraction at a critical time and hamper efforts in the CENTCOM region,” the statement said.

“And although I don’t believe there have ever been any differences about the objectives of our policy in the Central Command area of responsibility, the simple perception that there is makes it difficult for me to effectively serve America’s interests there.”

When asked if Fallon’s departure eases the path to military action against Iran, Gates called the assumption “ridiculous.”

Fallon, who previously served as commander of U.S. Pacific Command, took over the Central Command on March 16, 2007, from retiring Army Gen. John Abizaid.

His nearly 42-year career included a two-year stint as vice chief of naval operations, several leadership posts with the Atlantic fleet and a combat deployment onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Dempsey, meanwhile, had been nominated to receive a fourth star and become commander of U.S. Army Europe. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that move is on hold until a new CENTCOM commander is nominated and approved by the Senate.

In a Tuesday statement, Bush praised Fallon as an “outstanding sailor” who deserves credit for recent successes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.

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