updated 12/11/2007 7:11:11 PM ET 2007-12-12T00:11:11

The U.S. military in Iraq is undergoing its biggest changeover in senior commanders since Gen. David Petraeus launched a new counterinsurgency strategy nearly a year ago.

The high-level shifts come at a particularly delicate stage in the war as U.S. troop levels begin to decline, Iraqis are handed more security responsibility and Petraeus seeks to ensure that the gains achieved over the past several months continue.

The leadership changes are likely to be disruptive, at least for a brief period, as the new set of commanders — even those with Iraq experience — adjust to rapidly changing conditions.

Even so, with the studied approach the Army and Marine Corps take to rotating units and commanders — keeping the leaders informed daily of developments in Iraq, months in advance of their deployment— it is unlikely that the switches will result in changes to Petraeus' strategy.

With the exception of Petraeus, senior commanders generally arrive and depart with their units, which means most of those now leaving or preparing to leave have been there for up to 15 months.

Turnover begins
Topping the list of departures is Petraeus' second-in-command, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who is due to leave in February when the 3rd Corps finishes its command tour and returns to Fort Hood, Texas. He will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, from Fort Bragg, N.C.

"He's really done an amazing job with this counterinsurgency," said Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, referring to Odierno. "He has it all at his fingertips, and there is no way that anyone could come in and immediately be functioning at that level."

But there comes a point where a commander becomes worn down and should be replaced, Kagan said. He foresees a "temporary degradation" in command effectiveness when Odierno leaves, tempered by the fact that Petraeus and his staff will remain to ensure a degree of continuity. Odierno is credited with establishing trust among Iraq military and political leaders and applying a flexible approach to shifting his forces around the country as conditions have changed.

Odierno said in an Associated Press interview last week that he sees no reason to back away from the plan President Bush announced in September to withdraw more than 21,000 U.S. troops by July 2008, even though the recent security gains are fragile and Iraqi force improvements are uneven.

"The trends that I've seen have continued now for about 23 weeks — trends of decrease in attacks, decrease in IEDs (roadside bombs), decrease in civilian deaths and ethno-sectarian violence," Odierno said. "So I'm somewhat confident now that we'll be OK reducing down to 15 brigades."

Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general who returned Tuesday from a week-long visit to Iraq, said in a telephone interview that he has no concern about the current turnover of commanders.

"The only thing I'd be worried about is, when does Petraeus leave?" McCaffrey said. "This guy is unusual. He's a national treasure. I sure hope we keep him there for another year because he may be, in the short run, not replaceable." McCaffrey also had high praise for Austin, who will replace Odierno.

Focus on non-combat Like many of the arriving commanders, Austin has extensive Iraq war experience. He was assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division when it led the invasion in March 2003 and captured Baghdad a month later.

Focus on non-combat
After a stint in Afghanistan he was chief of staff at Central Command headquarters, which oversees all U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including the Iraq war.

Conrad Crane, the main author of the U.S. military's new counterinsurgency doctrine, who visited Iraq last month at Petraeus' invitation to assess how it is being applied, said it would be helpful if senior commanders served longer tours, "because the personal connections these guys make are so important."

In a recent interview, Crane, who is director of the Army's Military History Institute, said switching leaders — not just at the upper reaches of the chain of command but also midlevel commanders — is a matter of concern.

"Will the new leaders have the same respectability, the same adaptability and the same cultural sensitivity as the old ones?" he asked, adding that he thinks "generally it will work out OK."

Increasingly, Army and Marine commanders are focusing on non-combat aspects of the Iraq conflict — promoting economic growth, mentoring Iraqi forces and encouraging local, provincial and national political leaders to work out power-sharing arrangements and build civil institutions.

Thus, it will probably help that many of the arriving commanders know Iraq quite well.

For example, Maj. Gen. Jeffery W. Hammond — who is scheduled to assume command of U.S. forces in Baghdad on Dec. 19, replacing Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil of the 1st Cavalry Division — was an assistant division commander in Baghdad in 2004-05. Hammond is now commander of the 4th Infantry Division.

One of Hammond's two assistant division commanders, Brig. Gen. Will Grimsley, commanded the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, on the march to Baghdad at the start of the war. Grimsley's immediate superior at that point was Austin, and one of Grimsley's fellow brigade commanders was Daniel Allyn, who is now a brigadier general and will be going to Baghdad with Austin as his chief of staff.

In western Iraq, the Marines are in command, led by Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin. He is due to be replaced in February by Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly, who was assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division when it converged on Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division at the outset of the war. He did a second Iraq tour, in 2004 when the Marines replaced the Army in commanding forces in the west.

Kelly, like other commanders preparing to return to Iraq, has spent time there recently.

Of the two other major U.S.-commanded sectors, northern Iraq just saw the arrival of a new commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling of the 1st Armored Division. He replaced Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon of the 25th Infantry Division in late October. Hertling served once before in Iraq with 1st Armored.

The other major command area is south of Baghdad. It is the only one that will not change commanders. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, is in charge in that area until next summer.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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