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Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, facing the departure of his heir apparent, said he will stay at the helm of the nation's No. 3 automaker after his current contract expires in December 1991.

"When I came to Chrysler, I enlisted for the duration," Iacocca said in a statement. "Right now there's a battle raging and I'm not going to leave my troops in the field."The company last week lost its second-in-command when Vice Chairman Gerald Greenwald left to head the employee group bidding $4.4 billion for UAL Corp., the parent of United Airlines.

Iacocca, 65, engineered Chrysler's return from near bankruptcy in the early 1980s and has been in charge ever since.

Greenwald, 54, was also a key player in Chrysler's successful bailout and was deeply involved in arrangements for the government loan package that kept it in business.

But he also labored in Iacocca's shadow, and some analysts said he left because he could no longer wait to move into the spotlight.

Industry analysts applauded Iacocca's decision, saying it reasserted strong leadership at a time when Chrysler is losing market share and slashing costs.

In announcing the decision, Chrysler said Iacocca met with the nominating committee of its board of directors, which felt his decision was in the best interests of the company and its shareholders.

Iacocca said the extension does not mean that he is indispensable to Chrysler.

"Nobody is. It means that I've got a responsibility and I'm going to see it through. But I want to emphasize that I have no intention of being carried out of here."

Iacocca said he will institute an orderly succession plan for the top spot "on our own timetable."

The company had faced some questions about its succession plans in view of Iacocca's age and the unexpected departure of Greenwald.

The company has been facing weak car sales in an overall sluggish market and losing market share to its rivals, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., as well as Japanese automakers.