By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 21, 2006; A14
Gen. John P. Abizaid rose to become the top American commander for the Middle East in July 2003 with impeccable credentials for the job: A Lebanese American who speaks Arabic with a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard, Abizaid was considered a soldier's soldier. He led a Ranger company into battle in Grenada in 1983 and commanded an airborne battalion during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
But Abizaid's announcement yesterday that he will retire in March after almost four years as a chief architect of U.S. Iraq strategy comes as violence drives civilian and military casualties there to record highs and as officials broadly say the U.S. military campaign is at a stalemate.
The departure of the general, who has won wide respect for his candid advice to the administration as the head of U.S. Central Command, was expected and is not seen as an indication of his own displeasure or that of superiors over his performance. "I think the time is right, and it has nothing to do with dissatisfaction," Abizaid told reporters in Baghdad.
"After 50 months out here, I think it's okay to think about retiring," he said.
His decision creates an opportunity for President Bush, with the recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, to name a commander who will take a fresh approach as they weigh alternative military strategies.
Supporters portray Abizaid, 55, as a brilliant commander who did his best, despite constraints from Washington, to adapt the U.S. military to fight an unanticipated guerrilla war -- which he was among the first to identify -- and later the unexpected outbreak of sectarian violence.
"Understanding how difficult the job is, nobody's done it better than John Abizaid," said a Pentagon official who as an Army general worked with Abizaid.
Yet critics say Abizaid has placed too much emphasis on Arab sensitivity to foreign occupation, and therefore never demanded enough U.S. troops to stabilize the country. "He was too smart by half," another U.S. officer said.
"The bottom line is we are losing a war in his theater on his watch," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, saying Abizaid's popularity has dwindled in recent months as the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated. "We need a fresh approach."
Abizaid made clear his continued opposition to a major surge of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the current 140,000, arguing that it would perpetuate a mentality of dependency by Iraqi forces and increase resistance among Iraq's population.
The widespread expectation within the military has been that Abizaid will be succeeded by Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who led the 101st Airborne Division in the invasion and early occupation of Iraq and later returned to head the effort to train Iraqi army and police forces. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is also expected to leave his post in the spring, and some Pentagon officials predict he will be followed by Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis. Casey is another candidate to replace Abizaid, one senior military official said. But all those moves will be dependent on the approval of Gates, whose views on the personnel changes are not well known.
Moreover, Abizaid's replacement will face the same immediate constraints: overstretched U.S. ground forces and the need to be able to respond to other contingencies in the region, such as a further escalation of fighting in Afghanistan or a serious showdown with Iran.
Abizaid recently acknowledged that more U.S. troops, as well as Iraqi forces and international forces, "should have been available" to stabilize Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
"General Shinseki was right," Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to then-Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki's prediction before the war -- dismissed by the Pentagon -- that several hundred thousand troops would be required to occupy Iraq.
Abizaid also made clear that his plans for a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq this year were aborted by a major, unanticipated outbreak of sectarian violence spurred by the February bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra. "We clearly did not achieve the force levels we had hoped to," Abizaid told reporters this fall, saying sectarian unrest could be "fatal" to Iraq.
Yet Abizaid has argued that the Army and Marine Corps, which face serious shortages of manpower and equipment, could simply not sustain a surge of 20,0000 troops into Iraq.
Some described Abizaid as having his hands tied by both the Bush administration in Washington and situations in Iraq that were beyond his control. Abizaid has also been frustrated over a lack of support in Iraq from other U.S. governmental agencies, believing military force is not the main tool for fighting what he has defined as the "long war" against violent extremists.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who has been friends with Abizaid for more than three decades and served with him in the 82nd Airborne Division in the mid-1970s, said Abizaid is "probably the most capable person we could have had because of his experience and his talent and his commitment to the troops he leads."
But Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said decisions made by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top government leaders put Abizaid in a difficult position.
Reed, who said he has had several personal conversations with Abizaid over the past few years, cited as particularly important the decision to limit the number of U.S. forces going into Iraq during the invasion in 2003 and the failure to plan for stabilizing Iraq after initial combat operations. "I always got the sense the mission was under-resourced and vaguely defined," Reed said.