WASHINGTON - In a sweeping indictment of the four-year effort in Iraq, the former top commander of US forces there called the Bush administration's handling of the war "incompetent" and said the result is "a nightmare with no end in sight."
Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez, who retired in 2006 after being replaced in Iraq after the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, blamed the Bush administration for a "catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan" and denounced the current addition of US forces as a "desperate" move that would not achieve long-term stability.
"After more than four years of fighting, America continues its desperate struggle in Iraq without any concerted effort to devise a strategy that will achieve victory in that war-torn country or in the greater conflict against extremism," Sanchez said yesterday at a gathering of military reporters and editors in Arlington, Va.
He is the most senior war commander of a string of retired officers who have harshly criticized the administration's conduct of the war. While much of the previous condemnation has been focused on the role of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Sanchez's was an unusually broad attack on the overall course of the war.
But his own role as commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal leaves him vulnerable to criticism that he is shifting the blame from himself to the administration that ultimately replaced him and declined to nominate him for a fourth star, forcing his retirement.
Though he was cleared of wrongdoing in the abuses after an inquiry by the Army's inspector general, Sanchez became a symbol - with civilian officials like L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority - of ineffective American leadership early in the occupation.
Sanchez said he was convinced the American effort in Iraq was failing the day after he took command, in June 2003. Asked why he waited until nearly a year after his retirement to voice his concerns publicly, he responded that it was not the place of active-duty officers to challenge lawful orders from civilian authorities.
Sanchez, who is said to be considering writing a book, promised further public statements criticizing officials by name.
"There has been a glaring and unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders," he said, adding that civilian officials have been "derelict in their duties" and guilty of a "lust for power."
White House officials would not comment directly on Sanchez's remarks. "We appreciate his service to the country," said Kate Starr, a White House spokeswoman.
She noted that General David H. Petraeus, the current top commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Baghdad, said in their testimony to Congress last month that "there's more work to be done, but progress is being made in Iraq. And that's what we're focused on now."
Sanchez has been criticized by some current and retired officers for what they call his failure to recognize the growing insurgency in Iraq during his year in command, and for not putting together a plan to unify the disparate military effort, a task carried out when his successor, General George W. Casey, took over in mid-2004.
Sanchez included the military and himself among those who made mistakes in Iraq, citing a failure by top commanders to insist on a better post-invasion stabilization plan. He offered a tepid compliment to Petraeus. The general, he said, could use US troops to gain time in Iraq but could not achieve lasting results.
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, criticized Sanchez for implying in his speech that the current military strategy of relying on additional troops and on protecting the Iraqi people is little different than the strategy employed when he was in command.
Noting that calls by members of Congress for troops were rebuffed by the Bush administration in 2003, O'Hanlon said, "Sanchez was one of the top military people who condoned that, if not directly, then by his silence."
Sanchez's main criticism was leveled at the Bush administration, which he said has failed to mobilize the entire US government, not just the military, to contribute meaningfully to reconstructing and stabilizing Iraq.
"National leadership continues to believe that victory can be achieved by military power alone," he said. "Continued manipulations and adjustments to our military strategy will not achieve victory. The best we can do with this flawed approach is stave off defeat."
Asked after his remarks what strategy he favored, Sanchez listed a series of steps - from promoting reconciliation among Iraq's warring sectarian factions to building effective Iraqi Army and police units - that closely paralleled the list of tasks frequently cited by the Bush administration as pillars of the current strategy.
Sanchez, who is now a Pentagon consultant training active- duty generals, said the administration's biggest failure had been its inability to formulate a detailed strategy for achieving those steps and "synchronizing" the military and civilian contributions.
"The administration, Congress, and the entire interagency, especially the State Department, must shoulder responsibility for the catastrophic failure, and the American people must hold them accountable," he said.
His talk yesterday at the annual convention of the Military Reporters and Editors Association was not the first time that Sanchez has been critical of the administration.
He drew a standing ovation at a gathering of veterans last month when he argued that the country's problems in Iraq were the result of a "crisis in national political leadership."