WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Wednesday promoted his two top Iraq commanders to lead U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was named head of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who served as Petraeus' deputy in Iraq until February, will become the new Iraq commander.
Gates' decision to promote the two generals who led the U.S. troop buildup plan suggests that he wants their counterinsurgency strategy, which hinges on dealmaking with and at times employing former insurgents, to define U.S. relations in the region.
The promotions are effective this fall, shortly after the surge is due to end in July.
Their appointments come at a precarious time in Iraq and the region.
The "surge" strategy, which led to a significant drop in violence, has been in peril in parts of Baghdad after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched an offensive in the southern port city of Basra last month. The Iraqi-led operation failed to quell violence there; instead, fighting spilled into Baghdad's Sadr City and exposed rifts among major Shiite factions.
There also have been growing concerns about Iran's purported efforts to develop a nuclear arms program. During his congressional testimony earlier this month, Petraeus said that Iran is inciting violence in Iraq, but he stopped short of calling for U.S. military action.
At a hastily planned news conference at the Pentagon, Gates said: "I don't know anybody in the U.S. military better qualified to lead" the U.S. efforts in the region.
Petraeus is replacing Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, who abruptly retired last month amid charges that he wasn't in sync with the U.S. strategy against Iran. Esquire magazine said that Fallon was "the strongest man standing between the Bush Administration and a war with Iran." Gates and Fallon both denied that there was a rift, but Fallon said that the perception forced him to leave.
"I am honored to be nominated for this position and to have an opportunity to continue to serve with America's soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and civilians," Petraeus said in a brief statement from Baghdad.
Petraeus became both the pitchman and the defender of the surge strategy, and he has strong influence at the White House. His high profile in the administration had some military commanders charging that he'd become too political. With his appointment, some military leaders wonder how much sway he'll have over Odierno and the U.S. Iraq strategy.
Many believe that Odierno, the III Corps commander in Fort Hood, Texas, redeemed himself during his stint as the No. 2 commander in Iraq last year. He came to the post under a cloud of controversy after some charged that his strong-arm approach to warfare lacked the nuance that counterinsurgency required.
Indeed, in his previous post as the commander of U.S. troops in northern Iraq, he called for aggressive tactics against the insurgency, at times inflaming tensions between U.S. troops and Iraqis.
Gates said he tapped Odierno to lead the U.S. mission in Iraq because of the personal relationships the general built with both U.S. commanders stationed in small outposts and Iraq's tribal and political leaders.
"In most parts of the world, especially the Middle East, personal relationships make a big difference," Gates said.
Until Fallon's retirement, Odierno was slated to be the Army's vice chief of staff. On Wednesday, Gates said that post will go to Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Odierno's predecessor in Iraq.