updated 10/1/2007 12:57:56 PM ET 2007-10-01T16:57:56

The U.S. military's contentious new command covering Africa began operating on Monday from a base in Germany, and will be gradually brought to full capacity over the next year, a military spokesman said.

Several African leaders have expressed doubt about the command's necessity, saying they want to avoid foreign troops on their soil.

The U.S. Africa Command headquarters, known as Africom, is being created to help African security forces tackle regional crises and terrorist threats — a nod to the continent's increasing strategic importance.

The command begins with a staff of 120 under Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward and will increase to about 800 over the next year, said Air Force Maj. John Dorrian, a spokesman for U.S. European Command in Stuttgart.

Idea to relocate to Africa
It will initially operate from the U.S. Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, but diplomatic efforts are still under way to find a permanent location in Africa, Dorrian said.

"No final decisions have been made about the final location of the headquarters," he said.

Liberia is the only country to publicly offer to host the command, though U.S. officials say other nations have made private offers.

Still, the plans have met with sharp resistance from many other African nations, most recently Nigeria, which angled to block the headquarters from being established in the Gulf of Guinea region.

"The Africom initiative has raised a lot of interest and attracted a lot of attention because ... Africa has to avoid the presence of foreign forces on her soil," South African Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said in August.

Last month, however, senior Pentagon official Ryan Henry denied the new command represented a "militarization" of U.S. relations with Africa. "This represents no change in policy," Henry insisted. "There are a lot of myths and rumors out there."

Under the U.S. military's system of regional headquarters, responsibility for Africa has been split between the Pacific Command, Central Command, and European Command.

5 regional teams planned
Over the next year programs currently overseen by those commands — like joint training exercises and humanitarian operations — will be taken over by Africom, Dorrian said.

The U.S. plan foresees a small headquarters, and five regional teams spread around the continent. The Pentagon has emphasized it is not building new bases.

"Plans call for the footprint of U.S. forces to be small," Dorrian said.

Africom is a so-called "unified combatant command" that will be made up of all branches of the military, as well as civilians from not only the Defense and State Departments, but also the Agriculture, Treasury and Commerce Departments, as well as USAID.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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