WASHINGTON – Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has submitted plans to retire and will leave his post in March – a step likely to make way for a change in military strategy at a time the Bush administration is seeking a new plan for Iraq.
Abizaid has been the primary architect of U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan since becoming head of the U.S. Central Command more than three years ago. He has strenuously resisted calls to increase troop levels to quell rising violence in Baghdad, arguing it would increase Iraqi dependence on Americans.
But a growing number of current and former officers have embraced the idea, some of whom have briefed President Bush as part of his month-long review of Iraq policy, and the White House is believed to be seriously considering the move.
“If you’re going to change the strategy, in fairness to (Abizaid), let him go,” said a former senior Pentagon official who has worked closely with Abizaid.
Abizaid’s departure clears the way for new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to recommend his own commander, a decision current and former defense officials said is nearly as important as the new administration strategy expected to be unveiled by Bush in January.
These officials said Gates will face a clear choice between generals who have agreed with Abizaid’s push to quickly hand over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces and a small but increasingly influential coterie of officers backing a more aggressive U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign.
According to defense officials, Abizaid submitted his retirement documents just over a month ago, shortly before Donald H. Rumsfeld was pushed out as Defense secretary. One recently retired Army general said Abizaid had wanted to retire earlier, but Rumsfeld blocked the move, insisting his war commanders stay in place.