U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has named the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to lead the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as U.S. military operations and security cooperation throughout the Middle East and in Central Asia and East Africa. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The move was not a surprise, but it confirmed Secretary Gates' desire for continuity in Iraq strategy, and the expansion to Afghanistan of the kind of success the administration says General Petraeus has had in Iraq.
"The kind of conflicts that we're dealing with not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, and some of the challenges that we face elsewhere in the region, in the Central Command area, are very much characterized by asymmetric [guerilla] warfare," said Secretary Gates. "And I don't know anybody in the United States military better qualified to lead that effort."
Secretary Gates also announced that General Petraeus' former deputy in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, will replace him, even though Odierno has only been home from Iraq for two months, much shorter than the minimum one year.
Gates was asked whether that reflects a 'stay the course' strategy, an approach that hurt President Bush's Republican Party in the 2006 election. The secretary indicated things have changed since General Petraeus was put in place early last year, including a surge of U.S. forces and a new counterinsurgency strategy.
"The course, certainly, that General Petraeus has set has been a successful course," he said. "So, frankly I think staying that course is not a bad idea. I would say it's a good idea."
The secretary said he expects General Petraeus to stay in Iraq for several more months while the process of Senate approval of his nomination proceeds. He says that, and the fact that the general will still supervise the Iraq war from his new post, means he will be intimately involved in the assessment that U.S. commanders will make in August and September, after the last of the surge forces leave Iraq. That assessment will determine when additional U.S. forces will be withdrawn, and how many.
During testimony before U.S. congressional committees this month, General Petraeus called for a 45-day period of assessment and he cautioned against withdrawing U.S. forces too quickly.
"We haven't turned any corners," he said. "We haven't seen any lights at the end of a tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible."
At Central Command, General Petraeus will replace Admiral William Fallon, who announced his retirement six weeks ago. An article published in Esquire magazine last month portrayed Admiral Fallon as standing against many people in the Bush administration who, the magazine said, wanted to go to war with Iran. Officials deny there were any substantive differences.
On Wednesday, Secretary Gates said all American commanders involved in Iraq, including Petraeus and Fallon, have the same view of Iran.
"It is a hard position because what the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and women inside Iraq," he said.
U.S. officials say the Iranian Quds Force, an elite unit of the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps, supports Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents, giving them funding, training and technology for high-powered roadside bombs.
Wednesday's announcements also included the withdrawal of General Odierno's nomination to be vice chief of staff of the army. That nomination goes instead to another former Iraq deputy commander, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, who has been Secretary Gates' chief military aide.