WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is considering Gen. David Petraeus for the top NATO command later this year, a move that would give the top U.S. commander in Iraq a high-level post during the next administration but that has raised concerns about the practice of rotating war commanders.
A senior official at the Pentagon said that it was weighing "a next assignment for Petraeus" and that the NATO post was a possibility. "He deserves one and that has also always been a highly prestigious position," the official said. "So he is a candidate for that job, but there have been no final decisions and nothing on the timing."
The question of Petraeus' future comes as the Pentagon is looking at changing several top-level assignments this year. President Bush has been an enthusiastic supporter of Petraeus, who has overseen a troop increase and counterinsurgency plan credited with reducing the sectarian violence in Iraq, and some officials say the president would want to keep Petraeus in Iraq as long as possible.
In one approach under discussion, Petraeus would be nominated and confirmed for the NATO post before the end of September, when Congress is expected to break for the presidential election. He might stay in Iraq for some time after that before moving to the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, but would take his post before a new president takes office.
If Petraeus is shifted from the post as top Iraq commander, two leading candidates to replace him are Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who is running the classified Special Operations activities in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, a former second-ranking commander in Iraq and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' senior military assistant.
By this fall, Petraeus would have served nearly 18 months in command in Iraq and would have accumulated more than 40 months of service in Iraq in three tours since 2003. In the NATO job, Petraeus would play a major role in shaping the Cold War-era alliance's identity, in coping with an increasingly assertive Russia and in overseeing the allied-led mission in Afghanistan.
Petraeus, 55, has been criticized by Democratic lawmakers opposed to Bush's decision to send additional combat forces to Iraq. A NATO post would give him additional command experience in an important but less politically contentious region, potentially positioning him as a strong candidate in a few years to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several military officials said. They and some others who discussed the potential appointment declined to be identified because they were speaking about an internal personnel matter.
But some experts say that Petraeus' departure would jeopardize U.S. efforts in Iraq, especially because the No. 2 officer in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, is scheduled to complete his tour and leave Iraq in mid-February.
Petraeus "should stay at least through this year," said Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We really need military continuity in command during this period in which we can find out whether we can transition from tactical victory to some form of political accommodation," he said.
"We have in Petraeus and Crocker the first effective civil-military partners we have had in this war," Cordesman added, referring to Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Petraeus' predecessor, served nearly three years in the top Iraq job before becoming Army chief of staff.
There has been some speculation that Petraeus' next post might be as head of the Central Command, which has responsibility for the Middle East region. That would enable him to continue to influence events in Iraq while also overseeing the military operation in Afghanistan and developing a strategy to deal with Iran. The Central Command post is now held by Adm. William J. Fallon. Fallon, through a spokesman, denied that he intended to retire from the military in the next several months.
Petraeus, through a spokesman, declined to comment on a possible NATO assignment. Geoff Morrell, the senior Defense Department spokesman, said that no decision had been made.
"Trying to guess General Petraeus' next assignment is the most popular parlor game in the Pentagon these days," Morrell said. "Where and when the general goes next is up to Secretary Gates and President Bush, and they have not yet decided those matters. However, they very much appreciate his outstanding leadership in Iraq and believe he has much more to contribute to our nation's defense whenever his current assignment comes to an end."
Of the potential successors for Petraeus, McChrystal and Chiarelli would bring contrasting styles and backgrounds to the fight. McChrystal has spent much of his career in the Special Operations forces. He commands those forces in Iraq, which have conducted raids against al-Qaida in Iraq, the mainly Iraqi group that U.S. intelligence says has foreign leadership, and against Shiite extremists, including cells believed to be backed by Iran.
In June 2006, Bush publicly congratulated McChrystal on the airstrike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist who was the head of al-Qaida in Iraq. The Pentagon does not officially acknowledge the existence of some of the classified units that McChrystal leads, and Bush's comments were a rare acknowledgment of the role these troops played in a high-level mission.
McChrystal, 53, a West Point graduate, also commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment and served tours in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in Afghanistan as chief of staff of the military operation there in 2001 and 2002.
He was criticized last year when a Pentagon investigation into the accidental shooting death of Cpl. Pat Tillman by fellow Army Rangers in Afghanistan held the general accountable for inaccurate information provided by Tillman's unit in recommending him for a Silver Star. The information wrongly suggested that Tillman, a professional football player whose decision to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks drew national attention, had been killed by enemy fire.
Chiarelli's strengths rest heavily on his reputation as one of the most outspoken proponents of a counterinsurgency strategy that gives equal or greater weight to social and economic actions aimed at undermining the enemy as it does to force of arms. Chiarelli, 57, has served two tours in Iraq, first as head of the 1st Calvary Division, where he commanded 38,000 troops in securing and rebuilding Baghdad, and later as the second-ranking U.S. officer in Iraq before becoming the senior military aide to Gates.
In a 2007 essay in Military Review, he wrote: ''Unless and until there is a significant reorganization of the U.S. government interagency capabilities, the military is going to be the nation's instrument of choice in nation-building. We need to accept that reality instead of resisting it, as we have for much of my career."
Petraeus' last post in Europe was as a senior officer for the NATO force in Bosnia, where he served a tour in 2001 and 2002. "He did a great job for me as a one-star in Bosnia," said Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who served as NATO commander at the time and has since retired. "He would have the credibility to keep Afghanistan focused for NATO."