Petraeus took the reins of U.S. Central Command from acting commander Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey in a ceremony here.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates presided over the change of command held at the base's Memorial Park.
"General Petraeus, you are again taking responsibility for our precious sons and daughters," Gates said. "I have no doubt they will continue to make you and me - indeed all Americans - very proud."
Petraeus now has responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He must deal with the threat that Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons poses to the region and world. He also must deal with an unstable government in Pakistan. U.S. Central Command reaches from Kazakhstan to Yemen and Egypt to Kyrgyzstan.
Petraeus commanded Multinational Force Iraq during the troop surge that turned the tide in Iraq's security. Violence dropped in Iraq, and most of the country has returned to Iraqi control.
Before the change of command ceremony, Gates presented Dempsey with the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and Marine Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Morin, U.S. Central Command's senior enlisted leader, with the Defense Superior Service Medal.
The Senate has confirmed Dempsey for his fourth star and the post of commander U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va. Dempsey - who was deputy commander of CentCom - took over as acting commander upon the retirement of Navy Adm. William J. Fallon in March. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John R. Allen succeeded Dempsey today in CentCom's No. 2 post.
"I recall my first meeting with Marty Dempsey after he took the reins of CentCom," Gates said in his remarks. "He gave me a sheet of paper outlining the priorities for this command and asked for my guidance. After hearing what Marty had to say, I simply held up his own sheet of paper and said, 'This is my guidance to you' - a testament to his strategic vision and pragmatism, which he possesses in extra measure."
Dempsey has been far more than a place-holder at U.S. Central Command, Gates said, and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agreed.
"Here at CentCom, Marty truly made the words 'acting commander' a contradiction in terms," Mullen said during the ceremony. "For there was nothing 'acting' about the way Marty has exercised the full spectrum of command throughout his entire area of responsibility. Nothing 'acting' about the way he orchestrated two wars at a critical time in our nation's history."
There also was nothing "acting" about his coordination with fellow combatant commanders and his management of the transition of Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa to U.S. Africa Command last month, Mullen said.
"Through it all, Marty has always placed the warfighter at the forefront - a priority that he made clear on Day One - and he has responded at every turn with a quiet confidence that earned my admiration and that of countless others under his command and throughout the region," the secretary said.
Gates next addressed the challenges awaiting Petraeus. "At the MNF-I change of command a few weeks ago, I said that history will regard him as one of our nation's great battle captains," Gates said. "He is the preeminent soldier-scholar-statesman of his generation, and precisely the man we need in this command at this time."
The troops under his command, "dealt our enemies in Iraq a tremendous blow," Gates said. "Now he will take aim at our adversaries in Afghanistan and lead security capacity efforts throughout the Middle East, the Gulf and Central Asia."
Mullen said that America has great expectations as Petraeus takes command here. "His watchwords - learn and adapt - have echoed from the streets of Baghdad to the halls of Washington," the chairman said.
He said Petraeus and Dempsey have "fired the minds of generations to understand the true purpose of power as a force for good: To listen in order to understand; to treat all cultures as equals, with dignity and respect; to admit quickly when we are wrong; and to share risk with those we protect - all in order to build trust."
Building trust among all peoples of the Middle East is the priority of the command, Mullen said. "The progress of peace, and the speed of that progress, depends upon the quality of trust Dave and this command will be able to achieve throughout the broader Middle East, and how he will build upon the lessons Marty has brought forward to this very moment," the chairman said.
While the challenges of the region may not require the same strategies Petraeus used in Iraq, he can build on that experience as he moves forward, Mullen said. "Dave, it is now your turn, with a new, broader aperture," the chairman said. "And we have great expectations ahead."
Both Petraeus and Dempsey are graduates of the U.S. Military Academy's class of 1974.
Representatives of many of the partner nations attended the ceremony and Gates had a special welcome for them. The secretary thanked them for their support in Central Command.
"The United States has had enduring interests in this part of the world for many decades under presidents of both political parties," he said. "We will continue to have a presence there, standing strong with our friends and allies."
Gates also praised the efforts of American troops serving in U.S. Central Command. "CentCom went on a war footing when our country was attacked and has not let up since," he said. "For seven years, those who serve in this command have bravely stepped forward and, when necessary, unsheathed the sword on our enemies.
"I've heard it said that 'communism didn't fall, it was pushed.' Likewise, violent extremism will neither crumble nor fade away of its own accord," the secretary continued. "It will be the valor, grit and fighting spirit of you - the men and women of U.S. Central Command - that will give heart to our friends while pursuing terrorists where they hide, wrecking their malevolent designs and keeping them far from our shores."
The men and women of U.S. Central Command have sacrificed for all Americans, and "we cannot thank you enough," Mullen said. "It doesn't take ceremonies like this to celebrate the confidence of a grateful nation in our men and women in uniform, here in Tampa, and throughout the world, who choose lives of great sacrifice, and along with their families, bear heroic burdens, and honor us all."