Marine general gets top command post

Blunt-talking Iraq veteran led Fallujah campaign

By Anne Gearan and Anne Flaherty
Associated Press / July 9, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Marine Corps General James Mattis has been picked to take over US Central Command, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said yesterday.

Mattis would replace General David Petraeus, who is now in Afghanistan as the top military officer for the United States and NATO there.

The shake-up occurs as the American public questions whether the fight in Afghanistan can be won, and the Defense Department is reeling from losing its top war commander — General Stanley McChrystal.

As head of Central Command, Mattis would oversee US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as across the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran.

Gates told reporters that he picked Mattis for his “strategic insight and independent thinking.’’

Mattis is a blunt-talking, seasoned war veteran best known for leading troops into the bloody battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.

He is somewhat of a surprising pick. On the one hand, Mattis has significant ground combat experience and is considered an intellectual who grasps the nuances of fighting a complicated counterinsurgency. In 2004, his division led the assault on Fallujah, and he played a key role in helping Iraqi forces negotiate with insurgents inside the city.

But he is also known to speak bluntly and off-the-cuff — much like McChrystal, who was fired for speaking critically of his civilian bosses.

In 2005, Mattis was chastised by his superiors for saying in a speech in San Diego that it was “fun to shoot some people.’’ Mattis was a three-star general at the time, stationed in Quantico, Va., when he told an audience that some Afghans deserved to die.

“Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight,’’ he said. “You know, . . . It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you. I like brawling.’’

His boss at the time, General Mike Hagee, said that the comments reflected the “unfortunate and harsh realities of war,’’ but that Mattis had been asked to watch what he says in public.