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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 00:16 GMT 01:16 UK
Profile: John Abizaid
John Abizaid
General Abizaid says he loves the Arab world

Lieutenant General John Abizaid faces high expectations in his role as the new man in charge of US Central Command.

He is trumpeted as the man who could help sway the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East.

The grandson of Christian Lebanese immigrants, he is a fluent Arabic speaker who professes to love the Arab world.

The 52-year-old father of three is said to be a new breed of American military leader, combining hands-on military leadership with scholarly achievement.

He has a reputation for being less doctrinaire on strategy and has strongly advocated training troops in peacekeeping as well as offensive roles.

Lieutenant General Abizaid went to university in Jordan and holds a master's degree in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard - earning him the nickname "Mad Arab" while at the US Military Academy in West Point.

His 30-year military career is equally impressive, and includes stints in northern Iraq during the latest Gulf crisis, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

He served as an operations officer with a UN observer group in Lebanon and was assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While leading a US Army Ranger rifle company during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, he apparently inspired a scene in the 1986 Clint Eastwood film 'Heartbreak Ridge' when he used a commandeered bulldozer to advance on a Cuban position.

Reassuring message

As head of US Central Command, Lieutenant General Abizaid will be responsible for military operations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, covering much of the Middle East.

He faces a tough task, dealing with the increased terrorist threat in the region as well as reconstruction commitments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

In March, he expressed confidence that Iraqi civilians would see American forces as liberators and not conquerors.

"I would say, as a person who has studied the Arab world and loves the Arab world, that 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," he said.

Jean AbiNader of the Arab-American Institute says his appointment should send a reassuring message to Arab-Americans and the Arab world.

"There's concern... that the US is discriminating against Arab-Americans because of their ethnicity and religion," he told the US-based National Review.

"To have someone in that kind of position, who is clearly not just there for show, is really important".

But Daniel Bymann, of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the issue of Lieutenant General Abizaid's ethnicity is unlikely to hold sway with ordinary people in Iraq.

"The Iraqis are likely to be more focused on whether the incoming individual can deliver humanitarian relief and maintain order," he said.

"That's what they'll judge him on, not his ethnic background".


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