The man who commanded US-led coalition forces during the first year of the Iraq war says the United States can forget about winning the war.
"I think if we do the right things politically and economically with the right Iraqi leadership we could still salvage at least a stalemate, if you will -- not a stalemate but at least stave off defeat," retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez said in an interview.
Sanchez, in his first interview since he retired last year, is the highest-ranking former military leader yet to suggest the Bush administration has fallen short in Iraq.
"I am absolutely convinced that America has a crisis in leadership at this time," Sanchez told AFP after a recent speech in San Antonio, Texas.
"We've got to do whatever we can to help the next generation of leaders do better than we have done over the past five years, better than what this cohort of political and military leaders have done," adding that he was "referring to our national political leadership in its entirety" - not just President George W. Bush.
Sanchez called the situation in Iraq bleak, which he blamed on "the abysmal performance in the early stages and the transition of sovereignty."
He included himself among those who erred in Iraq's crucial first year after the toppling of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Sanchez took command in the summer of 2003 and oversaw the occupation force amid an insurgency that has sparked a low-grade civil war in Iraq.
He was in the middle of some of the most momentous events of the war, among them the dissolution of the Iraqi army and barring millions of Baath Party members from government jobs: two actions seen as triggering the rebellion among Sunni Muslims, who fell from power with Saddam.
Sanchez is also most closely identified with the Abu Ghraib scandal, which occurred on his watch.
Though he was cleared of wrongdoing by an Army probe, Abu Ghraib's images of naked prisoners humiliated by a rogue torture squad cost Sanchez an almost certain fourth star in the Senate, which approves general officer promotions.
Sanchez, 56, declined to talk about Abu Ghraib or other key events of the war, or say who was to blame for what went wrong.
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"That's something I am still struggling with and it's not about blame because there's nobody out there that is intentionally trying to screw things up for our country," he said. "They were all working to do the best damn job they can to get things right."
Despite those good intentions, Americans will be forced to "answer the question what is victory, and at this point I'm not sure America really knows what victory is," said Sanchez, who is thinking of writing a tell-all book about his year in Baghdad.
The US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, reacted on Sunday to Sanchez's comments by insisting: "It's just way premature to be talking in terms of victory or defeat."
"What we're trying to do here is stabilize the security situation, particularly in Baghdad, to allow a political process some time and space to work," he said on Fox News.
He said time was needed for Bush's "surge" strategy, launched in January, of ploughing thousands more troops into Iraq "to make a difference on the streets and then time for this political process to unfold."
Sanchez said a large troop commitment would be needed for years to come but conceded it is "very questionable" whether Americans would support it.
Still, he said, "the coalition cannot afford to precipitously withdraw and leave the Iraqis to their own devices."
Andrew Krepinevich, a former aide to three defense secretaries who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, shared that assessment.
"What you are looking at are three factions who are profoundly mistrustful of one another," he said. "Iraq is a country where those on top have brutally repressed those on the bottom, and that is the way they look at seizing power and maintaining power."
Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, a ground commander in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, said he's trying to remain optimistic but thinks domestic support for the war will evaporate within 36 months.
"I personally don't think it's over yet," said McCaffrey, who recently toured Iraq. He said he thinks General David Petraeus, the coalition commander in Iraq, and Crocker can stave off a wider civil war.
"The question is, can the ambassador and Petraeus open reconciliation talks among Iraqis, and (Secretary of State) Condi Rice keep the regional powers from meddling any more in Iraq? The jury's out," he said.
Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse.