WASHINGTON - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday picked Gen. David Petraeus, widely praised as the top commander in Iraq, to lead all Middle East operations, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Gates also chose Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who recently served as Petraeus' No. 2, to take over as the top commander in Iraq.
Gates said Petraeus, who has overseen a military strategy credited with a dramatic reduction in violence in Iraq, was the most qualified general to lead U.S. Central Command and manage counterinsurgency operations in both wars.
"I recommended him to the president because I am absolutely confident he is the best man for the job," Gates said.
Gates said Petraeus has the ability to take on non-traditional threats, such as insurgencies, Islamic extremism and state-sponsored terrorism, that arise in the Central Command region.
"I don't know anybody in the United States military better qualified to lead that effort," Gates said.
The Pentagon chief said President George W. Bush had approved both recommendations and would send the nominations to the U.S. Senate.
Gates asked the Senate to approve the nominations by the end of May but said he did not anticipate the changes taking effect until "late summer or early fall."
If confirmed by the Senate, Petraeus will replace former Adm. William Fallon, who resigned after a reported break with the Bush administration over Iran policy.
At Florida-based Central Command, Petraeus will oversee U.S. operations in a region that includes Iran and 26 other countries as well as international waters that are both strategically and economically significant. That includes the Gulf and Straits of Hormuz.
Central Command is considered the toughest combatant command assignment.
"I am 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," Petraeus said in a prepared statement.
Some lawmakers quickly praised Gates' picks.
"As the former commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Ray Odierno clearly understands the broad picture," said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, top Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives committee on armed services.
"He worked hand in glove with Gen. Petraeus to implement the new counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq. He is enormously qualified and will do a superb job in his new role."