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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's top soldier, who has clashed with the government over the 2,500-strong military mission to Afghanistan, said on Tuesday he would step down in July after more than three years in the job.
General Rick Hillier's initial three-year term as chief of the defense staff expired in February and many had expected that he would stay on.
"I believe you will now be best served by the invigoration of new leadership, with the vision, energy, and strength to lead you through the challenges that will lie ahead," he said in a statement to the armed forces.
Hillier, 52, told the National Post newspaper earlier in the day that there was no truth to the suggestions the Conservative government had put pressure on him to leave.
"If anything, the pressure was the other way, to keep me around," he said in remarks published on the paper's website.
Hillier, a colorful character who is enormously popular with the rank and file of the armed forces and was always happy to speak to reporters, was outspoken about the need to build up Canada's military and never hesitated to chide politicians he felt were being obstructive or unhelpful.
"We've achieved the irreversible momentum that I wanted to have ... I'm quite comfortable that I can leave on a high," he told the Post.
Last October, rumors circulated in Ottawa that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was seeking to replace Hillier with a more low-profile candidate. Harper denied this was the case and Hillier said he still had things he wanted to achieve.
Hillier was appointed by the previous Liberal government in 2005 and soon raised eyebrows by describing Taliban militants as "detestable murderers and scumbags."
The Conservatives took power in January 2006 with a promise to pour billions into the armed forces, which they said had been neglected by the Liberals.
But strains started to show between Hillier and former Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor over the Afghan mission, in particular the question of whether Taliban militants captured by Canadian troops and then handed to Afghan authorities, had been abused.
The two men also disagreed in public over how long it would take to train the Afghan national army.
O'Connor was replaced in August 2007 amid criticism from opposition politicians that Hillier was too outspoken and was trying to take control of Canadian military policy.
In February, Hillier openly contradicted Harper's chief spokeswoman after she said the military had not told Ottawa troops had resumed the transfer of detainees to the Afghans.
He also infuriated the opposition Liberals by saying the armed forces had been forced to suffer through "a decade of darkness" when the Liberals were in power.
Harper told Parliament that Hillier had worked very well with the government and had done an excellent job.
Among the leading candidates to take over are:
* Lieutenant-General Walter Natynczyk, vice-chief of the defense staff.
* Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, chief of the land staff.
* Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson, chief of the maritime staff.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway