WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hailed as an American hero for his role in pulling Iraq back from the brink of all-out civil war, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus takes on an even more challenging job on Friday as the head of U.S. Central Command.
The warrior-scholar with a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University takes responsibility for U.S. military operations in a volatile swathe of the world that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and the Gulf.
As the top commander in Iraq, Petraeus presided over a surge of 30,000 extra U.S. troops into the country and implemented a strategy focused on protecting the Iraqi population, which contributed to a steep decline in violence.
The turnaround in Iraq was also due to other factors -- including Sunni former insurgents turning against al Qaeda and a ceasefire by radical Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- but Petraeus has received widespread credit for his leadership.
His work earned lavish praise from President George W. Bush and both candidates to take over in the White House, particularly Republican Sen. John McCain, and a promotion to the post at Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida.
But while Iraq was regarded by many as a lost cause when he took command there in February 2007, Petraeus could at least concentrate on one country and had as many as 170,000 U.S. troops under his direct command.
In his new post, he has responsibility for an area that includes 20 countries and less direct control.
Afghanistan will demand much of his attention. Insurgent violence has risen sharply there this year and both McCain and his Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama, who leads in the polls, have pledged to send more U.S. troops.
“You have a leader who’s become, obviously, well known because of his role in Iraq and the public perception is driven by that,” said Peter Singer, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“Yet I think, with his Centcom hat on, it’s going to be Afghanistan that defines it.”
But the fight against the Taliban is led by a 50,000-strong NATO force with troops from more than 40 nations that reports to U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, the Atlantic alliance’s top commander, based in Belgium, rather than Petraeus.
Petraeus will only have a direct line to about 19,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan engaged in missions ranging from training Afghan forces to conducting counterterrorism operations.
However, analysts say the authority of his office -- the head of Central Command is one of the top posts in the U.S. military -- and his own personal reputation will give Petraeus substantial influence across the region and in Washington.
In Pakistan, no one is seriously suggesting a large influx of U.S. troops to fight militants there so Petraeus will have to focus largely on persuading and assisting the Pakistani military to carry out effective operations.
Military leaders in Pakistan, where al Qaeda has regrouped in areas bordering Afghanistan, will be keen to learn from Petraeus, said Shuja Nawaz, the author of a book on the Pakistani army called “Crossed Swords.”
“The knowledge that he’s acquired in fighting ... militancy in Iraq is going to be listened to,” Nawaz said.
“Also, Gen. Petraeus’ knowledge of political systems and working with politicians is something that would be valuable.”
Petraeus always argues that defeating insurgencies requires much more than military force and stresses the importance of political deals and economic development.
With his intellectual air and high media profile, Petraeus is not universally loved in the U.S. military. Some believe he regards himself too highly and nickname him “King David.”
But Singer said there was no question that Petraeus was well-suited to the Central Command post.
“He’s obviously been proven to be ... besides a distinguished leader, a pretty creative thinker and a great motivator,” he said.
Editing by David Wiessler