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Arab-American now leads U.S. Central Command

From Barbara Starr

Gen. John Abizaid

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(CNN) -- The four-star, Arab-American general who took the reins of U.S. Central Command Monday was hailed as "the leader for the 21st century."

Army Gen. John Abizaid, 52, is now in charge of all U.S. troops and military operations in the Middle East, East Africa and south-central Asia. That area includes both Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We will defeat these terrorists who kill innocents, we will defeat these murderers who spare no faith," vowed Abizaid.

Abizaid formerly served as a deputy to the man he replaced, Gen. Tommy Franks, and he helped plan the U.S. strategies in Iraq.

"I know of no one more qualified to follow in Tom Franks' very large footsteps," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, calling Abizaid "the leader for the 21st century."

In his remarks during the handover ceremony, Abizaid praised the U.S. servicemen and women for their service to their country in recent conflicts.

"Yet we know their work is not done, and we understand that there may be equally tough and arduous campaigns ahead. Today, we ask our servicemen and -women to help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

Abizaid is fluent in Arabic and is the most senior military officer of direct Arab descent. He was born in the United States to a Lebanese-American family. Sources agree he will have a unique capability to put an Arab-American face on the U.S. military from the highest levels.

Abizaid is a native of Coleville, California. He is married and has three children.

"My son-in-law came in from Afghanistan 24 hours ago. My son came about a week ago from Korea, my daughter from Qatar and my family from all over the place," the general said, joking that they came to see the celebrities attending Monday's ceremony at the command's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

Abizaid is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as well as the Armed Forces Staff College and Stanford University. He also attended the University of Amman in Jordan.

He also has trained as a paratrooper and an Army Ranger; serving in the 82nd Airborne Division and the First Armored Division. Abizaid has extensive background in military operations, particularly in areas of civilian Muslim populations. He served with military operations in northern Iraq in the 1990s in protection of the Kurds, as well as in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Abizaid's career has also drawn attention from Hollywood. The Washington Post recently reported that Abizaid is the only officer on active duty who has had an episode in his career recreated on film with Clint Eastwood playing his role. The Post reported that while Abizaid was leading a Ranger company during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, "Abizaid ordered one of his sergeants to commandeer a bulldozer and drive it like a tank toward a Cuban position while Abizaid and other troops advanced behind it."

That moment was recreated in Eastwood's 1986 movie "Heartbreak Ridge," although it was part of the actor's fictional Marine Reconnaissance unit.

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