By ` Ann Scott Tyson and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 24, 2008
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and the public face of the war effort there, became President Bush's nominee yesterday to supervise U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia as head of Central Command, putting him in position to oversee American strategy in Iraq for years to come.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who worked closely with Petraeus as the No. 2 commander in Iraq until two months ago, was nominated to receive a fourth star and to take Petraeus's current job as the leader of Multi-National Force-Iraq.
Together, the moves would elevate the two military officers most responsible for executing last year's new counterinsurgency strategy and "surge" of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Senior officials said the shifts in top command are aimed at minimizing disruption to the military campaign in Iraq, at a time when security there remains fragile, and as the prospect looms in Washington of major changes in Iraq policy after the U.S. presidential election in November.
"This arrangement probably preserves the likelihood of continued momentum and progress," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in announcing the nominations at the Pentagon yesterday morning. Referring to Odierno as Petraeus's "right-hand man" and pointing to the officers' close relationships with U.S. and Iraqi commanders, Gates said the decisions will "provide some continuity for a new administration," though he added that the next president will "always have the opportunity to make a change."
In a pattern similar to that of World War II, the nominations mark the ascent within the military of a generation of Army division commanders who rose to prominence as combat leaders during multiple battlefield tours. Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division during the Iraq invasion, then returned as a three-star general overseeing the building of Iraqi forces before taking his current job -- in all, spending nearly four of the past five years in Iraq. Odierno led the 4th Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle early in the war and returned to Baghdad as the top commander for day-to-day military operations.
Gates also announced that his senior military assistant, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, will replace Odierno as Bush's nominee to become the Army's vice chief of staff. Chiarelli, a veteran of two commands in Iraq who has written articles advocating fresh thinking within the Army, would run the service day-to-day and would seek to manage the strain on the force from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates said he hopes the Senate will confirm the nominees before Memorial Day. Hearings are expected next month, and senior Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday referred to Petraeus's confirmation as a fait accompli.
"In his new position, General Petraeus will have a much larger regional and strategic responsibility," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a statement. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, praised the "two remarkable fighting men" and urged the Senate to confirm them quickly.
Some Democrats, however, said Petraeus has focused too narrowly on Iraq.
"As he begins the confirmation process to become the next commander of CENTCOM, General Petraeus must answer the most important question we face, which is not whether we are winning in Iraq, but why we are not defeating al-Qaeda," Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.) said in a statement.
The personnel changes come at a critical time for decisions on troop levels in Iraq, currently at 156,000. Petraeus testified before Congress this month that after five U.S. brigades withdraw from Iraq by July, he will require at least 45 days to evaluate the impact of the reductions on security before assessing whether to recommend further reductions.
But Gates said Petraeus would decide whether to bring out another brigade, about 3,500 troops, before he leaves Iraq in "late summer or early fall," suggesting an immediate decision after the 45-day evaluation.
"I would expect that General Petraeus would . . . carry out not only the evaluation, but that first decision in terms of, are we able to draw down another brigade combat team?" Gates said. Subsequently, the job of making regular weekly evaluations of troop levels would pass to Odierno, he said.
Another key question the three nominees will face if confirmed is how to balance the demands for U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan while also allowing U.S. troops more time at home to recuperate and train for other missions.
Top U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, where a record 32,000 American troops are deployed, have asked for as many as three more brigades, which senior commanders say would be available only if drawdowns from Iraq continue. Pentagon officials are weighing whether the command structure in Afghanistan should be changed, Gates said, while the overall strategy for the country is also under review. Violence in Afghanistan increased sharply last year.
"One fascinating question will be the degree to which Petraeus's Iraq counterinsurgency doctrine will work in Afghanistan," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The relatively close relationship between Odierno and Petraeus could make such decisions easier, in contrast to what officers described as friction last year between Petraeus and Adm. William J. "Fox" Fallon, who resigned abruptly as Centcom chief last month.
Indeed, military officials familiar with the relationship between Petraeus and Odierno said mutual trust would make it easier for Petraeus to turn his attention to pressing regional issues such as Iran, Pakistan and Lebanon while Odierno assumed the reins in Iraq. As Centcom chief, Petraeus would oversee more than 200,000 U.S. military personnel in the region.
"Petraeus has the opportunity to hand off with confidence and expand his area of control and responsibility," said Lt. Col. Nathan P. Freier, a former adviser to Odierno in Iraq.
Both Petraeus and Odierno have voiced concern that Iran is supporting insurgents and militiamen in Iraq who are attacking U.S. troops. The generals say Iran has provided training, funding, financing and sophisticated weapons.
In congressional testimony this month, Petraeus cited what he considers Iran's significant role in Iraq as the foremost problem in the region. But rather than push for a military confrontation with Iran, he is likely to focus on ways of minimizing its influence in Iraq.
Gates said the two commanders have identical views on Iran. "It is a hard position, because what the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and women inside Iraq," he said.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff under whom Petraeus and Odierno both served, said Petraeus "is responsible for a stunning turnaround [in Iraq] and his knowledge of the region also is well known. He brings to Central Command . . . a stature and credibility to be able to operate in the region that is unprecedented."
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.