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General Petraeus to head U.S. forces in Middle East

The move brings greater focus to the conflict in Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Odierno is set to succeed Petraeus in Iraq.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2008

Washington and Baghdad

The US Army general who is directing the surge of American troops against the insurgency in Iraq will now be promoted to command the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Gen. David Petraeus, seen as the public face of the war in Iraq, has been nominated to lead US Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

Even as critics decry US policy there, General Petraeus is widely credited for implementing a more pointed strategy that, along with the surge of 30,000 American troops, has led to reduced violence on the ground.

But the move to reassign him to Central Command may help emphasize the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, which members of Congress, analysts, and military officials believe is suffering from a lack of focus. General Petraeus has earned a reputation as an expert in fighting insurgencies, and that expertise is much needed in Afghanistan, analysts say.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also announced the nomination of Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno to succeed Petraeus as commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq.

General Odierno recently finished a tour as Petraeus's deputy there, which means he could take over with little disruption, Mr. Gates told reporters Wednesday. "General Odierno is known recently to the Iraqi leadership, he's known to the Iraqi generals, and he is known to our own people," Gates said. "He has current experience and so the likelihood of him being able to pick up – for this baton-passing to be smooth – is better, and the odds are better with him than with anybody else I could identify."

Petraeus will now have to broaden his view considerably, with Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan added to Iraq as his primary focus. Or as Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington says, "He was focused on one big problem, now he has four."

Petraeus has focused on not squandering successes over the last year and accordingly has not been seen as pushing aggressively toward withdrawing more troops from Iraq. But as head of Central Command, he will have to juggle concerns about the health of the force as well as maintain the security situation, not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, says Mr. O'Hanlon, who viewed both nominations as positive.

"There may be some concern that [Petraeus] is not committed to Afghanistan, but he's a can-do guy who doesn't like to fail."

Gates acknowledged that he was installing new commanders in key positions prior to a new administration in the White House, but he said he did so out of the need for continuity. The next president is free to make changes if he or she desires, he said.

The command changes, which require Senate approval but are likely to occur in the coming weeks, mean Petraeus probably won't leave Baghdad until late summer or early fall, Gates said.