Top US general praises NZ role in Afghanistan

By Ruth Berry

The top-ranking commander of United States forces in the Middle East has praised New Zealand's contribution in Afghanistan, saying it has been "very helpful to the coalition".

General John Abizaid met Prime Minister Helen Clark in Wellington yesterday during a short visit to New Zealand.

His stopover came two days after Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters raised eyebrows when he said the US did not give New Zealand the credit it deserved for its role in the Pacific.

Asked about the issue, General Abizaid said: "I can't say what role I think that New Zealand would play in the Pacific but I can tell you that New Zealand's role in Afghanistan has been very helpful to the coalition.

"[New Zealand has been] very professional, very straightforward and very effective and we appreciate it."

Apparently concerned about how the general's response to the Pacific question might be read, Helen Clark added: "Bear in mind General Abizaid is responsible for the other half of the world, Admiral Fallon who was here in January looks after the Pacific."

She said she was "thrilled to have the general here".

A spokesman for Helen Clark said the pair discussed military operations New Zealand was involved in Afghanistan and Iraq.

General Abizaid, who visited Australia before coming to New Zealand, said there there was no end in sight to the insurgencies in Afghanistan.

He pointed to an increase in suicide bombings inspired by al-Qaeda, and assassinations of people co-operating with the Government.

He said he was "optimistic but realistic" about military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Phil Goff said earlier this month that New Zealand would extend its commitments in Afghanistan.

Australia has just committed 200 further troops to Afghanistan, bringing its total to 450. New Zealand has a 120-strong reconstruction team there.

Meanwhile, in Parliament yesterday the Government continued to refuse to join calls to close the United States detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

United Nations investigators have pushed for the facility to be closed, saying detainees there face treatment amounting to torture.

Under questioning by Green list MP Keith Locke, Mr Peters said: "The Government's position is that all persons detained at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere should be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and human rights law."

Helen Clark's spokesman said the issue was not raised with General Abizaid.

'Mad Arab' leads 250,000 troops

The commander in charge of United States forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is the grandson of Christian Lebanese immigrants whose love of the Middle East saw fellow soldiers nickname him "The Mad Arab".

General John Abizaid has been commander of the US Central Command, which oversees 250,000 troops and covers operations involving much of the Middle East, since July 2003.

He was its deputy commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A fluent Arabic speaker and the most senior US officer of direct Arab descent, he was trumpeted as the man who could sway hearts and minds in the Middle East.

He said before the appointment "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".

General Abizaid is credited with popularising the term "long war" increasingly used by US Administration hawks to describe the "war on terrorism".

The phrase was officially adopted by President George Bush in his January State of the Union speech.

General Abizaid went to university in Jordan and holds a Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard, interests which later earned him the nickname "The Mad Arab" at the West Point military academy.

His military career includes stints in northern Iraq during the latest Gulf crisis, Kosovo and Bosnia.

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

He has been praised by Arab-American groups for his strong support in promoting Arabs to high positions in the Army and for starting a programme to put Arab speakers on a fast-track for promotion.

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