"I recommended him to the president because I am absolutely confident he is the best man for the job," Gates told reporters. He cited Petraeus' in-depth understanding of the situation in Iraq as well as counterinsurgency operations, and the successes seen in Iraq under his leadership.
"The kinds of conflicts we are dealing with not just in Iraq, but in Afghanistan and some of the challenges that we face elsewhere in the region in the CentCom area, are very much characterized by asymetric warfare," he said. "And I don't know anybody in the United States military better qualified to lead that effort."
Gates also announced today that the White House will nominate Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who commanded Multinational Corps Iraq until just two months ago, to succeed Petraeus as Multinational Force Iraq commander.
Odierno served as Petraeus' right-hand man in Iraq, Gates said, and like Petraeus, has the experience required for the job.
"I believe in most parts of the world, especially the Middle East, personal relationships make a difference," Gates said. "And General Odierno is known recently to the Iraqi leadership, he's known to the Iraqi generals, he's known to our own people. He has current experience, so the likelihood of him being able to pick up for this baton-passing to be smooth – the odds of that are better with him than with anybody else I could identify."
Odierno had been nominated as Army vice chief of staff. That nomination will be withdrawn, with Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, currently Gates' senior military advisor, to be nominated for a fourth star and to serve in that position, the secretary announced.
Gates said Navy Adm. William J. Fallon's decision in March to step down as CentCom commander came unexpectedly, creating a big hole at "one of our most important combatant commands, one engaged in two wars and on many fronts and perhaps the most sensitive part of the world."
Gates said he turned to the person most up to speed on the region to fill the post quickly without losing momentum.
Petraeus said he is "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."
Gates said he expects the Petraeus-Odierno team to work together to continue building on progress taking place in Iraq. "I think the course ... that General Petraeus has set has been a successful course, so frankly I think staying that course is not a bad idea," he said. "I would say it's a good idea."
Because Odierno served directly under Petraeus for the past year, his assumption of the Iraq command with Petraeus at CentCom "probably preserves the likelihood of continued momentum and progress," Gates said.
The secretary urged the Senate to move quickly on the nominations, confirming them by Memorial Day, if possible, to pave the way for Petraeus to take the CentCom helm. Gates cited the "high respect" many Senate leaders have for Petraeus and said he expects a fairly smooth confirmation process.
Meanwhile, Petraeus will remain in the Multinational Force Iraq job through late summer or early fall to ensure a smooth hand-off to Odierno. Gates said he expects Petraeus to be on site to evaluate ground conditions following a 45-day pause to begin after the final surge forces withdraw from Iraq.
"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 or not, depending on conditions on the ground," Gates said.
At CentCom, Petraeus will broaden his responsibilities to address challenges not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region. Gates said he expects Petraeus to follow in Fallon's footsteps building relationships throughout the region.
Gates said he believes Petraeus, Odierno and Fallon all share the same views about the dangers of Iranian interference in Iraq. "What the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and women inside Iraq," he said.
The secretary expressed special appreciation to Odierno for his willingness to accept another tour in Iraq so soon after returning home, and to his family for supporting the decision.
"I think his extraordinary sense of duty that has led him to accept this tough assignment," he said. "I am personally very grateful to him and to his family for their remarkable service to this country."
Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who was Fallon's deputy commander, has served as acting CentCom commander since Fallon handed over the reins March 28.