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Gen. Sanchez: Abu Ghraib ‘clearly a defeat’

The man who was in charge of American forces in Iraq when Saddam was captured is leaving his post Thursday after more than a year in a very tough job.  Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told NBC’s Tom Brokaw he didn’t expect additional trouble from the insurgency as a result of Saddam’s court appearance, but this is an especially tense time.

Sanchez arrived in Iraq 15 months ago a little-known general.  He leaves proud of what he’s done but with some major unresolved problems and controversies.  Fallujah, the no-man’s land west of Baghdad, remains in the hands of terrorists.

Gen. Sanchez: The political leadership and the religious leadership in the city of Fallujah are beginning to realize that they must bring some stability and they must cooperate with the government and with the coalition forces in order to move forward.  The Fallujah Brigade has not been the success that we had hoped for.

Tom Brokaw: But can you do Fallujah incrementally or is it a matter of getting the people there to say, “Look, we’re so fed up, we’re ready now for a major military effort?”

Sanchez: I don’t believe that a major military operation of the nature that we saw in the April time frame would be politically acceptable.  It would be very divisive to the country.

Brokaw: The American military will not be going anywhere soon and may need more help as the Iraqi elections approach. You’re coming into the terrible, terrible heat of mid-summer.  Do you have enough troops?

Sanchez: Sure.  We’ve got enough troops for the missions that are currently assigned to us.  That is not — that has always been the case.  When you look out six or eight months to support the elections, clearly that will ... that could be a period where we need additional forces. That could be another period where we may have to overlap forces to give us the strength on the ground.

Brokaw: You’ve been through some difficult days here.  Was there ever any one more difficult day when the photographs from Abu Ghraib were published around the world?

Sanchez: I don’t know that there was any particular day that I would highlight.  This was clearly a defeat for us here in Iraq.  But the good news — America is showing its true democratic values.  We’re pursuing this openly.

Brokaw: I know this is a tough question.  But ultimately, do you think you may be held responsible?

Sanchez: I’m very, very comfortable with the decisions that I made and the directives that were issued, and the judgment that I applied to the situations.  And there was absolutely no command directive that would even give anybody the idea that that was acceptable in this command.

Brokaw: All military commanders want the American people to understand and support their mission, but President Bush’s Iraq policies are getting hammered in the polls.

Sanchez: What I can tell you is that this country is a lot better off today than it was 13 months ago, 14 months ago when I first arrived.  There’s freedom of expression.  You see a sovereign country today. And we have made some great sacrifices here.  But it was a worthy cause.

Sanchez says the first thing he wants when he leaves Baghdad is to spend more time with his family; he’s seen them only five days in 15 months.