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WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials unveiled a plan Wednesday to realign the military command structure to help defend the United States against future terrorist attack and to redraw lines of responsibility for fighting wars overseas.

The centerpiece of the plan is the creation of U.S. Northern Command, to be headed by a four-star general whose mission is to defend the continental United States and to lend military support to civil authorities if another disaster like Sept. 11 occurs.

"The plan we announce today is undoubtedly the most significant reform of our nation's military command structure since the first command plan was issued shortly after World War II," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon news conference.

The military is currently divided among nine commanders, each with a specific area of the globe or a responsibility, such as special operations or transportation. Under the changes, which are to take affect Oct. 1, Northern Command - a new 10th command - will take over responsibility for defense of the continental United States and waters 500 miles off the East and West coasts.

The command will also be responsible for monitoring events in Mexico, Canada and portions of the Caribbean, and for coordinating security and military issues in those areas.

The command is to be headed at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., now home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. NORAD, which holds responsibility for defending the United States and Canada against missile attack, will come under Northern Command.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that no new roles or missions would be created for the Department of Defense. NORAD will continue to defend American air space.

But on the ground, in the event of another attack like Sept. 11, or a natural disaster, the military will centralize under one command responsibility for lending support to the FBI, Federal Emergency Management Agency and state and local authorities.

One exception would be a nuclear, biological or chemical attack within Washington, D.C., Rumsfeld said. In that case, the military would lead emergency responses.

Military leaders have urged creation of the Northern Command for several years, according to senior Pentagon officials, but some were eager to avoid being viewed as meddling in civilian affairs. Sept. 11 muted those concerns.

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