By Tony Capaccio
Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East during most of the Iraq war, said today that he will retire in mid-March.
Abizaid has opposed a major increase in U.S. troops in Iraq -- an idea President George W. Bush is considering -- saying extra forces would only increase Iraqis' dependency on U.S. forces and strain a U.S. military that's already stretched.
Abizaid, at a press conference in Baghdad today, said ``the time is right'' for his retirement and ``it has nothing to do with dissatisfaction'' with U.S. strategy in the war. Abizaid was with new Defense Secretary Robert Gates who's in Iraq to reassess that strategy.
Abizaid, 55, is the longest-serving head of the U.S. Central Command, with authority over more than 200,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East, South Asia and the Horn of Africa. He began in July 2003 what was supposed to be a 3-year stint in the post and agreed to stay on until early 2007 at the request of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said Major Matt McLaughlin, a Centcom spokesman.
Testifying at a Nov. 15 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Abizaid said he did ``not believe that more American troops right now is the solution'' to quelling the sectarian violence in Iraq, now at an all-time high.
Discussing the issue with reporters several weeks before, he made this point: ``Every time American troops operate in large numbers, it creates a dynamic where Iraqi troops do less. It's very important that Iraqi troops take responsibility for military operations in their own country.''
Moreover, adding troops in Iraq would strain military missions elsewhere, he said. ``Where do you think they would come from?'' he asked.
Abizaid, during the Nov. 15 hearing, became one of the first active-duty military officials to say that then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was correct when he told the armed services panel in February 2003 that the U.S. would need ``several hundred thousand'' troops to stabilize a postwar Iraq - - an assessment roundly rejected at the time by Rumsfeld and his then-deputy Paul Wolfowitz.
Abizaid disagreed publicly with Rumsfeld as early as July 16, 2003, when he told a press conference that the U.S. faced a ``classical guerrilla-type campaign'' in Iraq.
Rumsfeld in an earlier press conference said ``I don't use the phase `guerrilla war' because there isn't one.''
The book ``State of Denial'' by Washington Post editor Bob Woodward, Abizaid as telling visitors to his Qatar headquarters in 2005 that Rumsfeld ``has no credibility anymore.'' Abizaid denied making the remark.
A native of Coleville, California and the grandson of Lebanese Christian immigrants, Abizaid is fluent in Arabic and attended the University of Amman in Jordan before earning a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University.