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Abizaid plans to leave post in March

John P. Abizaid is the head of US forces in the Middle East. John P. Abizaid is the head of US forces in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON -- Army General John P. Abizaid, commander of US 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 US military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan since becoming head of the US 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. "He's given it all he's got, in terms of personal sacrifice."

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 US-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.

Abizaid's four-year term as chief of the US Central Command, known as Centcom, was set to end in July. But some close to the Army have speculated in recent weeks that his term might be extended to see through implementation of the administration's new Iraq strategy. A Centcom spokesman, however, said that earlier this year Rumsfeld had asked Abizaid to stay only until "early 2007."

"He does not intend to extend beyond that period," said the Centcom spokesman. "General Abizaid became commander in July 2003 and has served longer in this position than any previous commander."

As Gates begins his search for a successor, the candidate most closely associated with Abizaid's strategy is General George W. Casey Jr., the commander of US forces in Iraq, who is also expected to leave his current assignment early next year.

Although Casey was considered the favorite to become the next Army chief of staff under Rumsfeld, Gates could decide to move him to Central Command for continuity, officials said.

Critics of the current war effort, however, argue that making Casey either chief of staff or Centcom commander would send the wrong signal -- essentially endorsing a strategy that even Bush now acknowledges has failed.

The leading candidate from the counterinsurgency advocates is Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus, a highly respected military thinker who led the 101st Airborne Division during the initial Iraq invasion.

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