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Sunday, March 30

Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid

Arab-American commander could play critical role once war ends

By Mike Madden | GNS

WASHINGTON - In the battle for territory in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid is one of the top U.S. military commanders. In the battle for public opinion once the war ends, he could be even more important.

Abizaid, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, which is running the war in Iraq, is the highest-ranking Arab American in the U.S. military - making him a potent symbol for U.S. officials hoping to show people in the Middle East that this war is not about imperialism or oil.

So a week into the conflict, Abizaid has been appearing at Army briefings in Qatar and already is being talked about as a possible interim ruler in Iraq once U.S. forces defeat Saddam Hussein.

"It’s always very important to show the Arab world that Arab Americans are succeeding and being integrated into American society," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The grandson of immigrants from Lebanon, Abizaid, 51, grew up in Coleville, Calif., and went to college at West Point. He moved up through the ranks of the Rangers and paratroopers. By the first Persian Gulf War, Abizaid was commanding airborne troops in Kurdistan and later led troops in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Army legend has it that Clint Eastwood’s character in the 1986 movie "Heartbreak Ridge," about the invasion of Grenada, was partly based on Abizaid.

But beyond his soldiering, Abizaid also has studied the Middle East and Arabic at Harvard University and at the University of Jordan in Amman. He did other graduate work at Stanford University and speaks four languages.

Abizaid took his current post in January, when war preparations - and planning for how to rebuild Iraq afterward - were already underway. For the last several years, he had been working at the Pentagon.

In his first major press briefing once the war had started, Abizaid bantered easily with reporters in Qatar and spoke knowledgeably about the Middle East. He also seemed to focus on getting the U.S. viewpoint - that Saddam was a dangerous tyrant - across in ways that would resonate in the region.

"No one has killed more Muslims than Saddam Hussein," Abizaid said. "As a person who has studied the Arab world and loves the Arab world …the majority of educated Arabs that I talk to know that Saddam Hussein has been a plague on the Arab world and on his own people, and they welcome his removal."

The United States and Britain, with some input from the United Nations, are still trying to figure out exactly how Iraq will be run immediately after the war ends. If the United States imposes a brief military government, installing Abizaid at the top would make sense, analysts said.

"The fact that people (in post-war Iraq) will not be talking to somebody who is seen as ethnically alien is important," Cordesman said.

The flip side, he warned, is the chance that resentment among ordinary Iraqis might be greater against someone from the same background, because they might wonder why Abizaid isn’t entirely on their side. And some observers who oppose setting up a military government in Iraq say the public won’t like it no matter who is in charge there.

"It is good that the military is able to have a diverse representation in its ranks," said Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group in Washington. "As far as whether or not it would be a good idea to have him head up a new Iraq, it would be problematic whether it was General Abizaid or a general who wasn’t from an Arab background running the country. It’s not in our interests to be seen having a military occupation."

On the Web:

U.S. Central Command, includes biographies on top commanders