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A general of nuance and candor

Abizaid brings new tenor to Mideast post.

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In many other respects, Abizaid breaks with the stereotypic mold of four-star Army officers, according to some who know him. Although a competitive 1973 West Point graduate and combat veteran of the first Gulf War and 1983 US invasion of Grenada, where he lead a Ranger rifle company, Abizaid shuns the swaggering, back-slapping image popular among many of his peers. When he talks about military campaigns, he leaves out the usual football metaphors and wanted-poster analogies. Instead, for instance, he speaks of "sine waves of violence" in Iraq and the need for a long-term US presence that is "effective but not overbearing."

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Even more unusual, as an American of Lebanese descent with a Harvard degree in Middle Eastern studies, Abizaid is one of the few foreign-area officers to rise to the rank of four-star general and "bridge the gap between warrior and intellectual," says General Christman, who as military adviser to the State Department in the mid-1990s often sought Abizaid's advice on the Mideast peace process.

Indeed, Abizaid often stresses the cross-cultural imperatives of the war on terrorism, and the importance of nonmilitary remedies.

"What will win the global war on terrorism will be people that can cross the cultural divide," he told a congressional committee this week. It's an idea often overlooked, he said, by "people [who] want to build a new firebase or a new national training center for tanks." "The war against terrorism is a war largely of intelligence and perceptions," he noted. As a result, "it is important to tailor and temper our combat activities to cultural sensitivities and cultural concerns of the moderates as we pursue the terrorists."

In a concrete example of that sensitivity, Abizaid has ordered US commanders in Iraq to begin moving their troops out of symbolic locations, such as the Baghdad International Airport and Mr. Hussein's ornate palaces as the July handover approaches. Over the next year, he said US troops will move out of many public spaces into temporary barracks, consolidating the number of camps around Baghdad alone from 44 to 11.

"We want to bring down our footprint in Iraq as quickly as possible," he said, noting the "low tolerance" for a major foreign military presence in the region. If the summer transition to Iraqi rule goes smoothly, he said he could consider a troop reduction in the fall. Alternatively, civil war or another major emergency, while unlikely, could lead him to increase forces in Iraq.

Moreover, a drawdown of US forces will remain impossible until Iraq can establish its own security apparatus, including a national chain of command and effective defense ministry.

"There essentially is no strong Iraqi [military] leadership," ready to defend the country by July 1, and as a result Iraqi security forces could remain under the operational control of a multinational command, he said.

Abizaid plans to create a new position for a US commander to oversee Iraq, freeing himself to focus more broadly on the Central Command region. With a high-octane schedule, Abizaid now spends 80 percent of his time in the region, jetting between troop visits and meetings with military and political leaders in the region's 25 countries. Since assuming his post, he's only spent a few weeks at Central Command's base in Tampa, Fla. With his daughter and son in law also deployed last year, he jokes that he had "a family reunion in the Middle East."