New jobs set for 2 U.S. commanders with Iraq role

Posted in United States | 24-Apr-08 | Author: Thom Shanker

General David Petraeus, U.S. military commander in Iraq, during the 77th Iraqi Air Force day celebration in Baghdad's Muttana air base on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON: Under a plan announced at the Pentagon on Wednesday, the two commanders most closely associated with President George W. Bush's current strategy in Iraq would be elevated into new posts with responsibilities extending into the next administration over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

General David Petraeus would take charge of all military affairs across the Middle East and Central Asia, and would be succeeded as the senior commander in Iraq by Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who returned to Washington in February after serving 15 months as Petraeus's deputy.

Asked whether the planned nominations by Bush were a sign that American policy was to "stay the course" in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the security gains that had been achieved under Petraeus's command meant that "staying that course is not a bad idea."

The nomination of Petraeus could, however, portend a renewed American focus on Afghanistan, where the American war effort is widely recognized to be lagging, with violence by the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the rise. Gates already has expressed the desire to send several thousand additional troops to Afghanistan next year, although that could require further reductions in troop commitments to Iraq. Petraeus would be expected to apply his views of counterinsurgency to Afghanistan, which may include a push toward increased troops.

Gates said he and Bush settled on Petraeus for the post because his counterinsurgency experience in Iraq made him best suited to oversee American operations across a region where the United States is engaged in "asymmetric" warfare, a euphemism for battling militants and nonuniformed combatants.

The previous Central Command chief, Admiral William Fallon, chose early retirement in March after rankling the Bush administration with public comments that seemed to suggest differences with the White House. If Petraeus and Odierno were to win Senate confirmation to their new posts, Gates said, they would take over in late summer or early fall.

The situation in Iraq remains fragile, as Petraeus acknowledged in testimony to Congress this month when he warned that recent security gains could be easily reversed. Under his command, an increase in American forces brought troop levels as high as 165,000, and even critics of the increase say it contributed to a decline in violence, along with the cease-fire proclaimed by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr for his Mahdi Army militia and a shift in sentiment among Sunni tribes that turned them against Sunni militants.

Among the three candidates still vying to become the next president, Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has defended the idea of maintaining high troop levels even after the troop increase runs its course in July, bringing the number down to slightly more than 140,000.

The two Democratic contenders, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, by contrast, have pressed for troop reductions at a pace far faster than those that Petraeus has endorsed and have pledged to carry out withdrawals even if it meant going against the advice of field commanders. It would be unusual for a new president to replace a senior general new to his assignment. In a statement, Clinton described Petraeus as "an able and respected leader in Iraq under incredibly difficult circumstances," and said she looked forward to hearing. "how he will meet these important challenges" of the broader Central Command region.

McCain, at a news conference on Wednesday, said that Odierno "is maybe not perfect, but I think he has done a magnificent job." Referring to Petraeus, McCain said, "I think he is by far the best-qualified individual to take that job" as the regional commander.

After three tours in Iraq, Petraeus, 55, has become perhaps the best-known military officer of his generation, and it had been expected that his next assignment after Iraq would be as the top American commander in Europe. Chosen instead to take charge of a region that includes Pakistan and Iran, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus issued a statement on Wednesday saying, "I am honored to be nominated for this position and to have an opportunity to continue to serve."

Petraeus and Odierno have built a strong working relationship and are believed to see eye to eye on how to carry out the complicated Iraq mission ? one they believe requires offensive military operations, more subtle counterinsurgency missions and society-wide reconstruction, all at once.

Gates said Odierno was the logical choice to succeed his old boss because he was familiar to the officers and troops in Iraq and, not least, to the Iraqis. "In most parts of the world, especially the Middle East, personal relationships make a big difference," Gates said.

The defense secretary also announced that Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, Gates's senior military assistant, would be nominated for army vice chief of staff, a post that Odierno had been expected to take. Chiarelli has had two tours in Iraq ? first as commander of the First Cavalry Division and coalition forces in Baghdad, and then as the No. 2 commander in the country.

The Central Command position would be Petraeus's fourth tour in the region since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He first served as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, which invaded Iraq from the south and set up an area of control across the north. However, parts of the north, in particular the city of Mosul, are today among the most unstable in the nation.

He returned to Iraq to serve as commander of training Iraqi security forces, then commanded Fort Leavenworth, where he oversaw the writing of the army's new counterinsurgency manual, certain to influence his efforts in Afghanistan, too, if he is confirmed to the Central Command job.

Petraeus's challenge as leader of Central Command will be to avoid being trapped in continued, detailed management of the Iraq mission as he takes on vast geographical responsibilities across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, which clearly are the focus of American policy today far and above Europe or East Asia.

Gates said he believed that Petraeus would win quick confirmation, based on recent conversations that he had with leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But he said "a good handoff" of responsibilities.

That transfer could come about the time that Petraeus has promised to begin a new review of troop levels in Iraq, after the departure of five brigades by July will leave a force of about 140,000, slightly more than were in Iraq before the troop increase began.

The announcement that Petraeus, 55, would head Central Command, and Gates's emphasis on operations in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, reinforced the impression that Pentagon leaders expected the United States to have significant numbers of troops deployed in those two countries for some time to come.

When he was asked whether Petraeus's promotion to the theaterwide post, coupled with the selection of his former deputy, Odierno, to lead forces in Iraq, should be interpreted as a warning to Iran, which has often been accused of meddling with the affairs of its neighbor Iraq, Gates did not answer directly.

But he did not discourage the suggestion of a warning to Iran, saying: "What Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen inside Iraq."

Odierno had been criticized in some quarters during his first tour in Iraq, as commander of the Fourth Infantry Division based in Tikrit. A high point was the capture of Saddam Hussein by forces under his command, but his troops also were criticized for heavy-handed operations that, critics said, helped fuel frustration and, perhaps, the insurgency itself.

Yet he received high marks during his most recent tour, as day-to-day commander of operations playing an important role in prosecuting that troop increase strategy.