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A general of nuance and candor

Abizaid brings new tenor to Mideast post.

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Peering through wire rimmed glasses, America's top commander in the Mideast, Gen. John Abizaid, lays out the difficulties ahead with the clarity of a chess master studying a three-dimensional board.

In Iraq, violence will rise as terrorists work to foment civil war before an interim government takes power in July. In Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents are expected to step up attacks on key leadership and Afghan security forces as summer election near. In the broader war on terrorism, General Abizaid sees the greatest threat of all: growing Islamic extremism that could lead to the "Talibanization" of nations such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Yemen.

Yet the soft-spoken Californian, known for nuanced thinking and speaking his mind, remains optimistic that in time moderation will prevail. This candid but confident assessment, given this week before a congressional committee, is vintage Abizaid. His sophistication, coupled with straight-from-the-shoulder realism, is producing a view of the troubled region often lacking from the Pentagon podium, analysts say. He's also changing the tone of the way the US military in the region is run. Overseeing 217,000 troops undergoing a massive rotation in a volatile swath of the world stretching from the Himalayas to the Horn of Africa, Abizaid faces one of the most complex military challenges of his post-Vietnam generation.

In an early display of candor and independence, Abizaid last July flatly contradicted his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, by declaring that US troops faced a "classical guerrilla-type campaign" in Iraq. And in contrast to his blunt-spoken Texas predecessor, Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the swift armored assault on Baghdad, many experts believe Abizaid's subtler approach is better suited to fighting the messy counterinsurgency that has unfolded since Saddam Hussein's fall.

In a reflection of his leadership style, Abizaid dismantled General Franks's Commander's Action Group (CAG) after taking the reins of Central Command last July. That small group was widely feared at Central Command headquarters as a punitive body looking for chinks in the armor. "Franks ruled by fear," says one military analyst familiar with the organization.

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