Gen. Mattis picked to head Central Command

Defense Secretary Robert Gates picked Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to lead U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gates said he recommended Mattis to take the place of Army Gen. David Petreaus, who started his role as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan on Sunday.

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Petraeus was picked for that post in the aftermath of a controversial Rolling Stone article that led to the resignation of the previous commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

“Gen. Mattis has proven to be one of the military's most innovative and iconoclastic thinkers,” Gates said at a Pentagon press briefing on Thursday.  “His insights into the nature of warfare in the 21st century have influenced my own views about how the armed forces must be shaped and postured for the future.”

Mattis has served as the head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Mattis also has held a number of leadership positions in Central Command, including battalion command in the first Gulf War, leading the first conventional ground forces inserted into Afghanistan, commanding the 1st Marine Division during the initial combat and stability phases of the Iraq war, and command of all Marine Corps forces in Central Command, Gates notes.

Mattis is perhaps best known for leading the counterinsurgency battle in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq.

He’s also known for speaking bluntly at times and gained some notoriety in 2005 during a public speech in San Diego that earned him a reprimand from the Marine Corps Commandant, who asked him to watch his words in public.

"Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot," Mattis said at the time. "It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”

“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” Mattis also said in 2005. “You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

Gates said that the “appropriate action was taken at the time.”

“I think that the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned,” he said.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also backed Mattis’s nomination and brushed off any concerns regarding the Marine general’s blunt nature. Mullen said he watched Mattis “closely” in the last couple of years and that Mattis did “exceptionally well” as he interacted at the highest levels of NATO as one of the allied commanders.

Once President Barack Obama officially nominates Mattis, he would have to be confirmed by the Senate. One Senator, Mark Warner (D-Va.), immediately hailed the choice. Warner was in Norfolk, Va., where Joint Forces Command is based, in a meeting with Mattis when Gates announced his recommendation.

-- Michael O'Brien contributed to this article.