- Wednesday April 23 2008
General David Petraeus, leader of the US war effort in Iraq, has been nominated by the Bush administration to become the senior Middle East commander of US forces, defence secretary Robert Gates said yesterday.
The Pentagon plans to install Petraeus as the successor to his former superior, Admiral William Fallon, who resigned abruptly last month in a row over the Bush administration's aggressive approach to Iran. If confirmed by the Senate, Petraeus would take over the US central command later in the year.
Fallon often clashed with Petraeus over the war, criticising the general's plans for the troop "surge" in Iraq and predicting that the demands of Iraq would leave the military unprepared for other potential conflicts.
Petraeus, 55, has won praise from the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress for his "surge" strategy, centred on the addition of 30,000 troops.
He enjoys a close bond with George Bush and is considered a rising star in the military. His ascension in the ranks, either to command the Middle East region or Nato, was long anticipated in Washington.
Asked whether Petraeus' promotion showed confidence in a "stay the course" strategy for the war, Gates shot back: "The course that General Petraeus has set has been a successful course. So, frankly, I think that staying that course is not a bad idea."
Petraeus' ally and longtime No 2, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, is set to replace him on the ground in Iraq.
Both men face a Senate confirmation vote that is certain to expose fresh rifts over the wisdom of the "surge" and the coming halt in troop withdrawals. Gates urged a vote on the Petraeus nomination by the end of May.
Central Command, headquartered in the state of Florida, supervises the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as US military operations throughout the Middle East, central Asia and the Horn of Africa.
Before Fallon stepped aside March 28, the starkest contrast between he and Petraeus came over Iran. Fallon departed after granting an interview with Esquire magazine that portrayed him as the lone force slowing the president's march to war with Teheran.
Petraeus, however, has often laid blame for the escalating violence in Iraq at the Iranians' door. His departure from Baghdad for the Middle East command, which the Pentagon said should come by autumn, signals an antagonistic approach to Iran during the final days of the Bush presidency.
"Iran has fuelled the violence [in Iraq] in a particularly damaging way," Petraeus told the US Congress during high-profile testimony on the war earlier this month.
The Esquire report on Fallon generated significant speculation about whether he was forced out of the job in preparation for US military action against Iran, a charge the Pentagon denied today.
Petraeus, Fallon, and Odierno "were all in exactly the same position when it came to their views of Iranian interference inside Iraq", Gates said, adding that he would have preferred Fallon stay on longer.
Fallon, who is now retired, said at the time of his resignation that the magazine profile was a distraction.