WASHINGTON (AFP) - Norman Schwarzkopf, the US general who led Operation Desert Storm, which liberated Kuwait from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1991, died on Thursday at the age of 78.
Schwarzkopf, an American hero known popularly as "Stormin' Norman," died in Tampa, where he retired after his last posting as head of US Central Command, which controls US operations in the Middle East and South Asia.
"The men and women of the Department of Defense join me in mourning the loss of General Norman Schwarzkopf," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
Panetta said the decorated combat leader -- a hulking, shaven-headed bruiser of a commander -- had in "35 years of service in uniform left an indelible imprint on the United States military and the country."
Former president George H. W. Bush, himself sick in intensive care in Texas, was among the first to issue a statement mourning the loss of the man he chose to lead the war that came to define both of their careers.
"Barbara and I mourn the loss of a true American patriot and one of the great military leaders of his generation," his statement said.
"General 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," Bush said.
"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."
In a major test of the post-Cold War order, Saddam Hussein's million-man army invaded Kuwait in 1990 and looked set to roll into Saudi Arabia, which would have given him more than 40 percent of the world's oil reserves.
Bush assembled a coalition of 32 nations and Schwarzkopf was given command of 425,000 US and 118,000 allied soldiers, a force which decimated Saddam's military machine and drove it from Kuwait with minimal allied casualties.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1934, Schwarzkopf's connection with the Persian Gulf began when he was just 12 and he went to Iran to join his father, another decorated general, who had been posted there.
Educated in Tehran, Geneva and Frankfurt before returning to the United States to pursue a military career, Schwarzkopf specialized in mechanical engineering at the renowned West Point military college.
He also attended the University of Southern California and the US Army War College.
Upon graduating West Point, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and received advanced infantry and airborne training before getting his first foreign posting as an aide-de-camp to the Berlin Brigade in 1960 and 1961.
Schwarzkopf served briefly as an instructor at West Point before heading to Vietnam to join the fast-swelling numbers of US military advisers to the South Vietnamese army.
Quickly promoted up through the ranks, his reputation for bravery was confirmed during his second tour of Vietnam in 1970 when he rescued men from his battalion who were trapped in a minefield in the Batangan Peninsula.
After rushing to the scene in a helicopter, he crawled across the minefield, held a severely wounded man down until a splint could be put on his leg, and then led survivors to safety by ordering mines to be marked with shaving cream.
Unlike some of the generals that succeeded him in America's more recent wars, Schwarzkopf was a combat veteran, earning three silver stars and the coveted Combat Infantryman Badge for those who personally fought in battle.
His brusque and bold style was also the stuff of legend.
"When you get on that plane to go home, if the last thing you think about me is 'I hate that son of a bitch', then that is fine because you're going home alive," so one quote goes.
Schwarzkopf's infamous temper spawned the nickname "Stormin' Norman," which became tabloid headline fodder during the 1991 Gulf War.
In 1983 he led troops in battle during the US invasion of Grenada and in 1988 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the US Central Command, responsible for operations in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
As commander, Schwarzkopf had concocted a plan for the defense of the oil fields of the Persian Gulf against a possible invasion by Iraq.
After the US had engaged in a six-week air assault of Iraqi forces in January 1991, this became part of the strategy credited with bringing the ground war to a close in just four days.
He was also a public face of the campaign, appearing regularly in faded fatigues and a field soldier's patrol cap to brief the world's media.
"In the aftermath of that war, General Schwarzkopf was justly recognized as a brilliant strategist and inspiring leader," Panetta said.
"Today, we recall that enduring legacy and remember him as one of the great military giants of the 20th century."
After the war, Schwarzkopf turned down the position of army chief of staff and retired from active service in August 1991.
He had been successfully treated for prostate cancer in 1993.