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'Tough talking' general up for Iraq, Afghanistan command

By Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer
Gen. James Mattis would replace Gen. David Petraeus, who takes over command of the war in Afghanistan.
Gen. James Mattis would replace Gen. David Petraeus, who takes over command of the war in Afghanistan.
  • Gen. James Mattis recommended as next Central Command leader
  • He is known for his leadership in the 2004 battle of Falluja
  • His blunt talk has gotten him in trouble
  • Defense secretary: Mattis will speak "in an entirely appropriate way"

Washington (CNN) -- A controversial and leading U.S. general is in line to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis -- if he wins presidential and Senate approval -- will move from being the outgoing commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command to leading the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. The command also monitors Iran.

He would take over the post left open by the departure of Gen. David Petraeus, who was asked to take over command of the war in Afghanistan.

Mattis was an effective leader in the Marine Corps, in the eyes of the Pentagon, while commanding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Known for his straight talk and hard-core leadership of Marines in the 2004 battle of Falluja, Iraq, Mattis is considered a dark-horse pick by many in the halls of the Pentagon.

His blunt talk has gotten him in trouble: In 2005 he said, "It's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them," referring to Afghan fighters.

Asked if the general would be an effective leader for the Central Command region with the shadow of the comments still lingering, Gates said Thursday, "Appropriate action was taken at the time. I think that the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned."

"Obviously, in the wake of the Rolling Stone interview, we discussed this kind of thing. And I have every confidence that General Mattis will respond to questions and speak publicly about the matters for which he is responsible in an entirely appropriate way," Gates said.

The Rolling Stone interview led to the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the commander in Afghanistan, because of negative comments about Obama administration officials made by him and his aides.

Mattis' comment in 2005 was made when the then-three-star general was in a panel discussion before an audience.

"Actually, it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot," he said, prompting laughter from some military members in the audience. "It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling," he said.

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil," he said. "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."

The commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Gen. Michael Hagee, counseled Mattis about the remarks but defended him publicly, calling him "one of this country's bravest and most experienced military leaders."

Video: New Central Command head announced

"While I understand that some people may take issue with the comments made by him, I also know he intended to reflect the unfortunate and harsh realities of war," he said in a written statement. "Lt. Gen. Mattis often speaks with a great deal of candor."

Mattis also was the commanding general overseeing the case of the now-infamous slayings of civilians by Marines in Haditha, Iraq.

Some 24 civilians were killed on November 19, 2005, in what a human rights group and military prosecutors said was a house-to-house rampage by Marines after a roadside bomb killed one of their comrades.

Eight Marines were charged, and all but one were cleared, some of them by Mattis.

Mattis also was the overseeing authority in the murder case involving eight Marines found guilty of taking part in a plot to drag an Iraqi man from his home, kill him and then make it look like the man was an insurgent. That incident occurred near the western Iraqi town of Hamdania in April 2006.

Mattis later cut the sentences of at least two of the Marines involved in the plot.

Mattis had been preparing to retire after finishing his latest command, Gates said.

"General Mattis is one of our military's outstanding combat leaders and strategic thinkers, bringing an essential mix of experience, judgment and perspective to this important post," Gates said.

"General Mattis has proven to be one of the military's most innovative and iconoclastic thinkers. 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."