BAGHDAD | Gen. David H. Petraeus, whose strategy for countering the Iraq insurgency is credited by many with rescuing the country from all-out civil war, stepped aside Tuesday as Gen. Raymond T. Odierno took over as the top American commander of the conflict.
At a traditional change-of-command ceremony attended by top Iraqi and American military and civilian officials, Gen. Petraeus said Gen. Odierno’s skills and experience make him “the perfect man for the job.”
With Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates presiding at the ceremony in a cavernous rotunda of a former Saddam Hussein palace outside Baghdad, Gen. Petraeus handed over the flag of his command, known as Multi-National Force Iraq, to Gen. Odierno and then bade farewell.
Gen. Petraeus said the insurgents and militia extremists who have created such chaos in Iraq over the past five years are now weakened but not yet fully defeated. He noted that before he took the assignment in February 2007 he had described the situation as “hard but not hopeless.”
He thanked his troops for having “turned ‘hard but not hopeless’ into still hard but hopeful.”
Despite the security gains, insurgents retain the ability to carry out devastating attacks. On Monday evening, a female suicide bomber blew herself up among a group of police officers northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 22 people. Hours earlier, car bombs in the capital killed 13 people.
Because of Gen. Odierno’s extensive experience in Iraq, he is generally expected to be able to continue building on the gains made under Gen. Petraeus’ command, although an evolving set of difficult challenges face him here and in Washington, where he will soon have a new commander in chief.
A major part of Gen. Odierno’s job will involve working with Iraqi political leaders in tandem with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. In that role, Gen. Odierno may call on his experiences in 2004-05 as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he was the Pentagon’s liaison to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and traveled abroad with her frequently.
Gen. Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division during the opening months of the war in 2003. He returned in December 2006 at perhaps the darkest hour for the American-led enterprise, to be the No. 2 commander under Gen. Petraeus. He finished that tour in February.
Also addressing the ceremony was Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Iraq had become a “vastly different place” during Gen. Petraeus’ tenure.
“In more places and on more faces we see hope,” Adm. Mullen said.
Gen. Petraeus’ next assignment will be as commander of U.S. Central Command, with broader responsibilities. From his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., he will oversee U.S. military involvement across the Middle East, including Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian nations. He takes that post in late October.