WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will replace Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez as the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, senior defense officials said on Tuesday. But they said the change was not triggered by the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.
President Bush praised Sanchez for his work in Iraq but would not answer reporters' questions during a photo opportunity at the White House.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, said commanders are usually kept in the war zone for about a year -- and that Sanchez has been there more than a year. Other commanders will also be rotated out in the coming months, including himself, Kimmitt added.
Kimmitt said military officials in Iraq had always expected Sanchez to depart sometime after the June 30 transfer of power.
Search for replacement
One Pentagon source said Gen. George Casey, Army vice chief of staff, has emerged as the top candidate to replace Sanchez and assume the new position of unified commander of military forces in Iraq.
“There has been no final decision on a replacement, but Gen. Casey is a top candidate,” said one official.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with Abu Ghraib,” added another official. “The secretary (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) is very mindful that the perception (of punishment) might arise. But it simply is not the case.”
But defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, who has close connections to the Pentagon, said, “You’d have to be pretty naive to think that the problems with abuse of detainees had no impact at all on this decision.”
Sanchez testified before a Senate committee last week on the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which U.S. forces physically and sexually abused Iraqi detainees.
Sanchez took responsibility for the abuse because it happened during his time as commander. But he said he was not aware of the abuse while it was happening and moved quickly to investigate the matter after learning about it.
Sanchez was ensnared in the prison abuse scandal after The Washington Post reported that a military lawyer stated at an open hearing April 2 that Capt. Donald J. Reese told him that Sanchez and other senior military officers were aware of the abuse at the prison and that Sanchez was present at some of the interrogations.
Three, four stars
Sanchez is being considered for an appointment to head the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, a job that carries the fourth star of a full general, officials said.
Casey is a full general, and Rumsfeld has for months been considering making a four-star general the overall commander in Iraq, responsible for the broad direction of military operations while a three-star general handles day-to-day military operations. Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz serves in that capacity.
Sanchez was considered for the new position, but President Bush would first have had to nominate him for a fourth star, which is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Pentagon officials who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity said military officials concluded that it would be too complicated to go through that process in the middle of the war in Iraq.
Thompson doubted the move was intended to make Sanchez the scapegoat in the Abu Ghraib scandal, but said Pentagon leaders were “recognizing the fact that some atrocious behavior occurred while he was in command, and that has probably shaken their confidence in his suitability for the higher job.”
Thompson said numerous problems have been associated with Sanchez’s tenure as the top commander in Iraq since June 2003, but noted that Sanchez has faced the difficult task of defeating an insurgency.
“The fact of the matter is that the United States hasn’t decisively won a single major counter-insurgency campaign in modern times,” Thompson said.
“Look at all the problems Sanchez has faced: a flawed strategy, dreadfully inaccurate intelligence, inadequate forces on the ground, flagging domestic support, and a political leadership that seems to have multiple agendas above and beyond simply defeating the insurgents,” Thompson said. “This is not a prescription for success."
The U.S. military said in a statement Sunday that “this report is false.” It said Sanchez stood by his testimony before congressional committees that he was unaware of the abuses until he ordered an investigation into the allegations in January.
Sanchez and two other generals were summoned to testify last week before a Senate committee on the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which U.S. forces physically and sexually abused Iraqi detainees at a prison that once was a center of torture under ousted President Saddam Hussein.
During his testimony, Sanchez took responsibility for the abuse because it happened while he was the commander in Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s investigation into the abuse did not directly criticize Sanchez, but it found fault with an order he issued in November giving authority at the facility to a military intelligence unit. Some of the Army military police charged in the case have said military intelligence personnel recommended that they use harsher measures to “soften up” prisoners.
NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski and Campbell Brown in Washington, MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.