Chief of U.S. Military Forces in Mideast to Retire Early Next Year

The head of the U.S. forces in the Middle East plans to retire early next year, U.S. military officials have confirmed.

Central Command Chief Gen. John P. Abizaid, who became the top U.S. general in the region in July of 2003, will turn over his command in March. He took the post four months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has served longer in this position than any other previous commander.

In an agreement with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a military official said Abizaid agreed to remain Central Command chief until spring of 2007. He submitted his retirement request shortly before President Bush decided to replace Rumsfeld last month. A change of command ceremony is set for sometime in mid-March.

Abizaid is currently traveling in Iraq with new Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Abizaid is among the Pentagon chiefs who oppose a surge of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, as is now being considered, favoring instead a buildup of Iraqi forces and a heavy emphasis on increasing the number of U.S. military trainers.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee several weeks ago, Abizaid defended his views, saying a buildup of U.S. combat troops would be unsustainable over the long haul and noted the Army and Marines are already stretched.

While these views are at odds with some in the Bush administration and Congress who are said to favor a troop increase, military officials deny that Abizaid's views on the matter were a driving factor in his decision to retire.

Abizaid graduated from the United States Military Academy in June 1973 and started his career with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he served as a rifle and scout platoon leader. He commanded companies in the 2nd and 1st Ranger Battalions, leading a Ranger Rifle Company during the invasion of Grenada.

Abizaid commanded the 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Battalion combat Team in Vicenza, Italy, during the Gulf crisis and deployed with the battalion to Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. His brigade command was the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. He served as the assistant division commander, 1st Armored Division, in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Following that tour, he served as the 66th Commandant at West Point. Later, he commanded 1st Infantry Division, the "Big Red One," in Wurzburg, which provided our first ground forces into Kosovo.

He served as the deputy commander (forward), Combined Forces Command, U.S. Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Staff assignments include a tour with the United Nations as operations officer for Observer Group Lebanon and a tour in the Office of the Chief of the Staff, U.S. Army. European staff tours include assignments in both the Southern European Task Force and Headquarters, U.S. Army Europe.

Abizaid also served as executive assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, director of strategic plans and policy (J5) on the Joint Staff and Director of the Joint Staff.

Abizaid's decorations include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with five Oak Leaf Clusters and the Bronze Star. He earned the Combat Infantryman's Badge, Master Parachutist Badge with Gold Star, Ranger Tab and the Expert Infantryman's Badge

FOX News' Nick Simeone contributed to this report.