Gen Abizaid...is a graduate of the elite US military academy at West Point, where he earned the nickname "the Mad Arab" and is considered part of the new breed of army leaders with an advanced education and open to rethinking traditional doctrines...His reputation for decisive action was cemented during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada, where, facing a nest of hostile Cuban troops, Captain Abizaid ordered one of his officers to climb aboard a bulldozer, raise its shovel, and drive it towards the enemy while he and his men advanced behind it.
February 22/23, 2003
IRAQ CRISIS: US army's 'Mad Arab' tipped for governor role
By Peter Spiegel
Late last year, General Tommy Franks, head of US central command and the man who would lead US forces in a war against Iraq, approached Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defence secretary, about a delicate personnel change.
"How do you think I could approach the secretary of defence about the possibility of my getting General John Abizaid as one of my deputies?" Gen Franks asked.
"I don't know," Mr Wolfowitz replied. "He's not going to like it."
He was right. Donald Rumsfeld didn't like it at all. Neither did General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
The top brass at the defence department did not object to the assignment because of any concern over Gen Abizaid's abilities - the exact opposite. The 51-year-old army three-star general was so much in demand at the Pentagon, where he was serving in the critical post of director of the joint staff, that Mr Rumsfeld refused Gen Franks's request for weeks.
"You better figure out a way that you can make it so persuasive. . . that he is the only one in the entire armed forces - army, navy, air force and marines - that can do that job for you," advised Mr Wolfowitz.
"And that's not going to be easy."
Just after Christmas, Gen Franks won out. And Gen Abizaid may indeed prove to be uniquely qualified in the US military to help oversee a war in Iraq and its aftermath.
Not only is the Californian of Lebanese descent, he is also fluent in Arabic, with a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. During an unusual detour from the traditional career path, he decided to leave the elite Rangers unit he had joined as a second lieutenant to instruct Jordanian special forces in Amman during the 1970s.
Although administration of Iraq would eventually be handed to an American civilian, Gen Abizaid's background has several well-connected military leaders mentioning his name as the man to run the military's role in governing Iraq after the war, much as General Douglas MacArthur - who had served in Asia for years and had a wealth of knowledge of the region - oversaw the rebuilding of Japan after the second world war.
"If you're looking for a MacArthur type, which the military is desperately looking to find, I think Abizaid is the candidate," said Andrew Krepinevich, head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former personal aide to three defence secretaries. "I think it's a move of significance that he's being sent to central command as deputy."
Gen Abizaid has been there before. In the summer of 1991, the airborne battalion he commanded ran security operations in northern Iraq as part of Operation Provide Comfort, helping push back Iraqi army units from Kurdish areas after the end of the Gulf war.
It was an experience that forced him to develop intelligence networks within Kurdish villages and turn a unit trained to fight into one that could keep the peace in a region where Iraqi troops and feuding Kurdish tribes constantly rubbed up against one another. It also made him a strong advocate of actively training US forces in the delicate and occasionally ambiguous task of peacekeeping.
"Soldiers had to clearly understand the rules of engagement and the level of discipline necessary to keep cool under the most provocative circumstances," then-Lieutenant Colonel Abizaid wrote shortly after the operation.
"Mistakes were made, but we learned from them and developed some very savvy, capable peacekeepers."
"As we get ready to fight the next war," he wrote in the 1993 article, "let us also keep thinking about how we might have to keep the peace."
In many respects, Gen Abizaid is the polar opposite of Gen Franks, who is considered a member of what some analysts consider the "old army", grounded in the traditional theories and strategies developed during the cold war.
Gen Abizaid, on the other hand, is a graduate of the elite US military academy at West Point, where he earned the nickname "the Mad Arab" and is considered part of the new breed of army leaders with an advanced education and open to rethinking traditional doctrines. "He's the embodiment of the new army culture," says Loren Thompson, head of the Lexington Institute.
The difference between the two generals is so pronounced that rumours recently circulated that Mr Rumsfeld, who has frequently locked horns with the traditional army officers, moved Gen Abizaid into the number two post at central command in order to keep an eye on his new superior - a view Mr Rumsfeld says is "hogwash".
Still, there is little doubt that Gen Abizaid brings a reputation for high intelligence and quick decision-making that will be critical in a war where US troops are likely to be racing towards Baghdad - very unlike the standard slow-moving flanking actions used during the first Gulf war.
His reputation for decisive action was cemented during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada, where, facing a nest of hostile Cuban troops, Captain Abizaid ordered one of his officers to climb aboard a bulldozer, raise its shovel, and drive it towards the enemy while he and his men advanced behind it.
The incident became so celebrated that it was adopted by Clint Eastwood, who gave identical orders during his film about the Grenada invasion, Heartbreak Ridge.