WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. general once criticized for saying it was "fun to shoot some people" was tapped by the Pentagon on Thursday to lead the military command running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
General James Mattis, the current head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command and who previously led troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, had widely been tipped as the next head of Central Command. President Barack Obama must formalize the nomination, which then goes to Congress for approval.
Centcom, as it is known, oversees operations in a volatile swathe of the world that covers 20 countries and stretches from Egypt across the Middle East and into south and central Asia.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, announcing his decision to recommend Mattis for the post, praised the four-star general as "one of the military's most innovative and iconoclastic thinkers." Gates also dismissed concerns about his 2005 comments, saying Mattis had learned his lesson.
Mattis was reprimanded at the time by the Marine Corps for telling a conference in San Diego, California: "It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front 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 said during a panel discussion. "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 appropriate action had been taken at the time, when Mattis was reprimanded by the Marine Corps and told to choose his words more carefully.
"I think that the subsequent five years have demonstrated that the lesson was learned," he said.
Mattis, who had been due to retire, was picked for the post after a shakeup due partly to inappropriate comments by General Stanley McChrystal, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan who was sacked on June 23.
The former Centcom chief, General David Petraeus, vacated the post after agreeing to assume command of the Afghan war after McChrystal and aides were quoted making disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama and top aides in a Rolling Stone magazine article.
"Obviously in the wake of the Rolling Stone interview, we discussed this kind of thing," Gates said. "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."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Eric Beech)