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WASHINGTON – Retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who topped an illustrious military career by commanding the U.S.-led international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991 but kept a low public profile in controversies over the second Gulf War against Iraq, died Thursday. He was 78.

Schwarzkopf died in Tampa, Fla., where he had lived in retirement, according to a U.S. official.

A much-decorated combat soldier in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf was known popularly as “Stormin’ Norman” for a notoriously explosive temper. He served in his last military assignment in Tampa as commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, the headquarters responsible for U.S. military and security concerns in nearly 20 countries from the eastern Mediterranean and Africa to Pakistan.

Schwarzkopf became “CINC-Centcom” in 1988 and when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait three years later to punish it for allegedly stealing Iraqi oil reserves, he commanded Operation Desert Storm, the coalition of some 30 countries organized by then-President George H.W. Bush that succeeded in driving the Iraqis out.

At the peak of his postwar national celebrity, Schwarzkopf – a self-proclaimed political independent – rejected suggestions that he run for office, and remained far more private than other generals, although he did serve briefly as a military commentator for NBC.

While focused primarily in his later years on charitable enterprises, he campaigned for President George W. Bush in 2000 but was ambivalent about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying he doubted victory would be as easy as the White House and Pentagon predicted. “What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites? That’s a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan,” he said.

Initially Schwarzkopf had endorsed the invasion, saying he was convinced that former Secretary of State Colin Powell had given the United Nations powerful evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. After that proved false, he said decisions to go to war should depend on what U.N. weapons inspectors found.

He seldom spoke up during the conflict, but in late 2004, he sharply criticized then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for mistakes that included inadequate training for Army reservists sent to Iraq and for erroneous judgments about Iraq.

“In the final analysis I think we are behind schedule. ... I don’t think we counted on it turning into jihad (holy war),” he said in an NBC interview.

Schwarzkopf was born Aug. 24, 1934, in Trenton, N.J., where his father, Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., founder and commander of the New Jersey State Police, was then leading the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnap case, which ended with the arrest and 1936 execution of German-born carpenter Richard Hauptmann for stealing and murdering the famed aviator’s infant son.

Although reputed to be short-tempered with aides and subordinates, he was a friendly, talkative and even jovial figure who didn’t like “Stormin’ Norman” and preferred to be known as “the Bear,” a sobriquet given him by troops.

Young Norman followed in his father’s footsteps to West Point, graduating in 1956 with an engineering degree. After stints in the United States and abroad, he earned a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Southern California and later taught missile engineering at West Point.

In 1966, he volunteered for Vietnam and served two tours, first as a U.S. adviser to South Vietnamese paratroops and later as a battalion commander in the U.S. Army’s Americal Division. He earned three Silver Stars for valor – including one for saving troops from a minefield – plus a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and three Distinguished Service Medals.

After Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Schwarzkopf played a key diplomatic role by helping to persuade Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd to allow U.S. and other foreign troops to deploy on Saudi territory as a staging area for the war to come.

On Jan. 17, 1991, a five-month buildup called Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm as allied aircraft attacked Iraqi bases and Baghdad government facilities. The six-week aerial campaign climaxed with a massive ground offensive on Feb. 24-28, routing the Iraqis from Kuwait in 100 hours before U.S. officials called a halt.

Schwarzkopf said afterward that he agreed with Bush’s decision to stop the war rather than drive to Baghdad to capture Saddam.

But in a desert meeting with vanquished Iraqi generals, he allowed a key concession on Iraq’s use of helicopters. It backfired by enabling Saddam to crack down on rebellious Shiites and Kurds. After retiring from the Army in 1992, Schwarzkopf wrote a best-selling autobiography, “It Doesn’t Take A Hero.”

The Associated Press

Reaction to the death of retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf:

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“With the passing of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, we’ve lost an American original. From his decorated service in Vietnam to the historic liberation of Kuwait and his leadership of United States Central Command, Gen. Schwarzkopf stood tall for the country and Army he loved. Our prayers are with the Schwarzkopf family, who tonight can know that his legacy will endure in a nation that is more secure because of his patriotic service.” — President Barack Obama.

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“Barbara and I mourn the loss of a true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation. A distinguished member of that ‘Long Gray Line’ hailing from West Point, Gen. Norm Schwarzkopf, to me, epitomized the ‘duty, service, country’ creed that has defended our freedom and seen this great nation through our most trying international crises. More than that, he was a good and decent man — and a dear friend. Barbara and I send our condolences to his wife, Brenda, and his wonderful family.” — former President George H.W. Bush.

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“With the passing of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, America lost a great patriot and a great soldier. Norm served his country with courage and distinction for over 35 years. The highlight of his career was the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. ‘Stormin’ Norman’ led the coalition forces to victory, ejecting the Iraqi Army from Kuwait and restoring the rightful government. His leadership not only inspired his troops, but also inspired the nation. He was a good friend of mine, a close buddy. I will miss him. My wife, Alma, joins me in extending our deepest condolences to his wife, Brenda, and to her family.” — former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

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“The men and women of the Department of Defense join me in mourning the loss of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose 35 years of service in uniform left an indelible imprint on the United States military and on the country. The son of a decorated Army officer, Gen. Schwarzkopf followed his father’s legacy of service by enrolling in West Point in the 1950s. His bravery during two tours in Vietnam earned him three Silver Stars, and set him on the path lead our troops into battle in Grenada, and then to take charge of the overall allied effort in the first Gulf War as commander of United States Central Command. Gen. Schwarzkopf’s skilled leadership of that campaign liberated the Kuwaiti people and produced a decisive victory for the allied coalition. In the aftermath of that war, Gen. Schwarzkopf was justly recognized as a brilliant strategist and inspiring leader. Today, we recall that enduring legacy and remember him as one of the great military giants of the 20th century. My thoughts and prayers are with the Schwarzkopf family in this time of sadness and grief.” — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

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“I was saddened to learn today of the passing of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a fellow West Point graduate, former CENTCOM commander and one of the 20th century’s finest soldiers and leaders. I join the civilian and military leaders of our country, and servicemen and women, past and present, in mourning his death. Gen. Schwarzkopf embodied the warrior spirit, serving with distinction in three conflicts over his 35 years of dedicated service. The hallmark of his remarkable career was the swift and decisive victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces after they invaded Kuwait. The thoughts and prayers of the Joint Chiefs and the Joint Force are with Gen. Schwarzkopf’s family and friends.” — Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.