Army Gen. Abizaid Will Retire in March

Army General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, is retiring in March. The General is opposed to sending more troops to Iraq, an option the Bush administration is reportedly considering. Peter Spiegel broke the story for the Los Angeles Times and talks with Madeleine Brand about developments.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, Army General John Abizaid, plans to retire early next year. Abizaid oversees military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he has publicly opposed sending more troops to Iraq. He'll retire in March, several months early. That news was first reported in Today's L.A. Times by Peter Spiegel, who's here now. Hi, Peter.

Mr. PETER SPIEGEL (Reporter, L.A. Times): Hi. How are you?

BRAND: Fine, thank you. Well, is General Abizaid leaving entirely voluntarily?

Mr. SPIEGEL: I think he is, frankly. And in talking to army generals who have worked with him, he has actually wanted to leave for some time now. It's - you know, war is a tough thing. He's been doing it for over three years now, and he has, you know, asked to retire in the past, apparently, and Donald Rumsfeld has basically said you are my war commander. You will stay here until I don't need you anymore. The fact that he is - Rumsfeld is now gone, I think, was part of the reason Abizaid decided to step down.

But also, you know, everything going on with the Iraqi Study Group, with the Bush administration reconsidering its plans, you know, Abizaid sort of saw the writing on the wall that the Bush administration was considering a new plan. And with a new plan, the president probably should have a new commander. I think that was part of the decision as well.

BRAND: And who will likely be that new commander?

Mr. SPIEGEL: Well, that's what everyone is watching now. There is broadly two schools of thought - like there is in the general public and in Washington -within the military about how to proceed in Iraq. There is the Abizaid school, frankly, which as you mentioned, is largely looking to gradually draw down, hand things over quickly to the Iraqi security forces.

But there's a growing number of people within the military who argue we never have actually properly fought a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. We may need more forces for that. And that camp may see a commander chosen from that group as well. So there are - like the general public, there are generals in either camp as well, and it will be interesting to see who Gates recommends because of that.

BRAND: And, and any names that we may have heard of in the news?

Mr. SPIEGEL: Well, the most mentioned name is - on this counterinsurgency side - is Lieutenant General David Petraeus, and some of your listeners may recognize that name. He was the commander of the 101st airborne division during the initial invasion of Iraq. Since then, he has also been the first guy to sort of really turn around the training of Iraqi forces in Iraq and is now off at one of the army's leading sort of schools of thinking.

He is very much identified with this let's fight the war a different way. We have been putting our guys in big bases to go out and shoot insurgents. That is not the way to win the hearts and minds. The way to win the hearts and minds is to go into cities, set up small little outposts on the street corners. Interact with the locals more, find out who the bad guys are - but more importantly, protect the population, separate them from the insurgents. And if the president decides to go that direction, Petraeus is the name that most frequently comes up.

BRAND: And does he have any strikes against him? Any reasons not to appoint him?

Mr. SPIEGEL: Well, if the president decides to go another direction, that would be the biggest strike against him. But the institutional Army also is maybe a stumbling block. I mean the, the Army - for all its talk about getting the new war, to getting the counterinsurgency campaign - still remains very tradition bound, really values the conventional heavy arms, combat arms type of skill. And there are a lot of generals on that side, and one retired army said it's probably, you know, a 70-30 split, that most of these guys have been trained in their careers - conventional arms, big maneuver warfare. That is probably the biggest motivator against sticking in Petraeus.

BRAND: This decision will be made by the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Do you know - does anyone know which way he's leaning?

Mr. SPIEGEL: We don't. I mean, the interesting thing about Gates is at his confirmation hearing, he seemed very open to this idea of a more complex counterinsurgency campaign. Frankly, he seemed open to anything at this point, so we can't read too much into that. But, you know, you have a lot of former retired army guys who in the past have really backed Abizaid's plan who are starting to switch over and say, you know what? We have never really done a proper counterinsurgency campaign, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gates would come on to this idea if there is a change in strategy.

BRAND: Peter Spiegel, Pentagon reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks for joining us.

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