Military's odd couple rises up the ranks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno could hardly have seemed more different in approach. But they later formed a partnership that helped both land top jobs on Wednesday.

The scholarly, wiry Petraeus had his troops working on politics and economics to revive the northern city of Mosul in 2003 while the giant, shaven-headed Odierno conducted tough combat operations around Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town.

Petraeus won widespread praise for his approach while Odierno faced criticism that his tactics drove local people into the arms of insurgents, although he insisted his sector was very different from Mosul and needed a robust approach.

The two men came together again in Iraq last year to implement a strategy that helped drive down violence and marked a change in image for Odierno as he stressed the importance of reconciliation and good governance to bring stability.

A former senior U.S. officer who has worked extensively with both men said Odierno’s thinking had evolved. But he said Odierno was always a far more thoughtful officer than his formidable appearance might suggest.

“This guy has a degree in nuclear engineering,” the former officer said. “One should not be confused by his size. Many have made that mistake.”

Although critics have questioned whether the gains in Iraq are sustainable, both Petraeus and Odierno have won praise for helping pull the country from the brink of all-out civil war.

Petraeus, 55, has been chosen to become head of U.S. Central Command, the military headquarters that oversees operations in a swathe of countries across the Middle East and beyond including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

Just a couple of months after finishing a grueling 15-month tour in Baghdad as Petraeus’ number two, Odierno, 53, has been selected to return to Iraq to take command there.


While Petraeus has enjoyed a high media profile since commanding the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Odierno is less known to the general public.

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates described Odierno as “one of the most effective military leaders of his generation” at a ceremony in Baghdad in February to mark the end of his tenure as head of the Multi National Corps-Iraq.

“This Corps carried out a strategy that combined classic counterinsurgency principles with approaches that broke new ground in the history of warfare,” Gates proclaimed.

Under Petraeus and Odierno, some 30,000 extra U.S. troops flowed into Iraq and U.S. forces combined aggressive operations against Islamist militants with greater efforts to provide security for Iraqi civilians.

Overall violence in Iraq dropped 60 percent from June of last year until fighting erupted late last month in the southern city of Basra.

Petraeus has urged caution in withdrawing troops. He told Congress earlier this month he wanted to freeze troop levels to take stock when the current round of withdrawals leaves about 140,000 U.S. military forces in Iraq at the end of July.

That approach looks likely to continue under Odierno, who has also warned repeatedly that withdrawing too quickly could threaten security gains.

Nathan Freier, a retired army lieutenant colonel who has known Odierno since the 1991 Gulf War, said he had developed a deep knowledge of Iraq almost unrivaled in the U.S. military that made him a strong choice for the top job.

“He displays a unique grasp of the complexity of the Iraqi theater,” said Freier, who spent several months in Iraq last year as part of a small group advising Odierno.

“He draws the right people to advise him, draws from a very wide spectrum of viewpoints,” added Freier, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Freier said putting Odierno in charge of Iraq with Petraeus as his boss at Central Command meant the two men could build on the strong working relationship they developed in Baghdad.

“My sense is that the relationship was a very good one and that it worked very well,” Freier said. “The relationship is just being taken one level higher now.”