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Saakashvili Dismisses Defense Minister

Bacho Akhalaya (right) will take over the Defense Ministry.
TBILISI (Reuters) - Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has replaced his defense minister, saying he was not satisfied with the military's combat readiness a year after the war with Russia.

David Sikharulidze, 41, was replaced by his 28-year-old deputy Bacho Akhalaya, a close ally of Saakashvili and powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Sikharulidze held the post for eight months, overseeing the rebuilding of Georgia's shattered military after defeat by Russia in a five-day war last August.

It was the second cabinet change in the Georgia in a week, after Economic Development Minister Lasha Zhvania was dismissed on August 21.

"Despite the improvement in the preparation and readiness of the military, I would not assess the readiness of our army as fully satisfactory to defend against a very dangerous aggressor," Saakashvili told a session of the National Security Council.

The year since the war has seen several leadership changes in the military, with analysts citing friction between different factions in the armed forces and the Defense Ministry top brass.

Authorities put down a brief, bloodless mutiny at a tank base in May amid opposition street protests. The protesters demanded that Saakashvili quit over his record on democracy and last year's war, when Russia crushed a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia after days of escalating skirmishes with rebels.

Georgia's opposition, which accuses Saakashvili of monopolizing power since the 2003 Rose Revolution, slammed the appointment of Akhalaya as "wrong and dangerous."

"This appointment means police control of the army and raises the chances of military adventure," said Republican Party Chairman David Usupashvili.

Sikharulidze, a former ambassador to the United States, was appointed foreign policy adviser to the president.

A Tbilisi law graduate, Akhalaya was previously head of the penitentiary department of the Justice Ministry, before becoming deputy defense minister last year.

"We will modernize the army and quicken integration into NATO structures. It will be an army capable of defense," he told reporters after the Security Council meeting.

Diplomats say last year's war slammed the brakes on Georgia's NATO accession bid, faced with fierce Russian opposition and unease in some European capitals over the country's readiness.

Dozens of U.S. marines have arrived to start the training next week of several hundred Georgian soldiers for deployment in Afghanistan later this year and next.