STUTTGART, Germany — One of the American military’s most seasoned combat leaders took charge Friday of U.S. Africa Command, whose No. 1 mission is to work with allies to neutralize the continent’s widening web of Islamic extremist groups, including those affiliated with al-Qaida.

Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez took over for Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, who is retiring after 39 years in uniform, including two years as an enlisted 82nd Airborne paratrooper.

Rodriguez served two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, including as the No. 2 commander of coalition forces during the 2010 U.S. troop surge. He is a member of a high-achiever West Point class of 1976 that includes the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno.

Ham and Rodriguez made the switch at a ceremony presided over by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, at a hotel near Africa Command’s Stuttgart headquarters.

Dempsey called Rodriguez well-suited to lead Africa Command, calling him “smart and decisive.”

Notable for his absence was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He sent two letters — one read for him at a retirement ceremony for Ham and another at the formal change-of-command ceremony. Dempsey said Hagel had been “held” in Washington on other business.

Since its creation in 2007, Africa Command has grown from a relative backwater to arguably one of the most important commands in the U.S. military establishment. That is largely due to rising concern about Islamic extremists in the region, including a group known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which gained strength following the March 2012 coup d’etat in Mali.

Other extremist groups of particular concern to the U.S. are Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Africa Command’s area of responsibility covers the entire African continent minus Egypt.

As the Africa Command chief, Ham managed the U.S. portion of a 2011 coalition campaign to establish a no-fly zone over Libya in support of rebels whose uprising led to the violent overthrow of long-time strongman Moammar Ghadafi. A low point for Ham was the terrorist attack on U.S. government compounds in the Libyan city of Benghazi last September that killed our Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

A U.S. government official said Thursday that extremist and criminal elements in Benghazi still pose serious threats, underscored by recent assassinations of Libyan government officials in the city. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal U.S. assessments, said the situation in Benghazi is “not encouraging.”

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