WASHINGTON - In a sweeping indictment of the four-year effort in Iraq, the former top commander of American forces there called the Bush administration's handling of the war "incompetent" and said the result was "a nightmare with no end in sight."
Lt. Gen. 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 American 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," General Sanchez said 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 former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, General 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, 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.
General Sanchez said he was convinced that 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 the civilian authorities.
General 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 General Sanchez's remarks. "We appreciate his service to the country," said Kate Starr, a White House spokeswoman.
She noted that Gen. 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."
General Sanchez has been criticized by some current and retired officers for failing to recognize the growing insurgency in Iraq during his year in command and for failing to put together a plan to unify the disparate military effort, a task that was finally carried out when his successor, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., took over in mid-2004.
General 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 General Petraeus. The general, he said, could use American troops to gain time in Iraq but could not achieve lasting results.
Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, criticized General 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, Mr. O'Hanlon said, "Sanchez was one of the top military people who condoned that, if not directly, then by his silence."
General Sanchez's main criticism was leveled at the Bush administration, which he said failed to mobilize the entire United States 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, General Sanchez ticked off 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 the pillars of the current strategy.
General Sanchez, now a Pentagon consultant who trains active-duty generals, said the administration's biggest failure had been its lack of a detailed strategy for achieving those steps and "synchronizing" the military and civilian contributions.
"The administration, Congress and the entire inter-agency, especially the State Department, must shoulder responsibility for the catastrophic failure, and the American people must hold them accountable," he said.
His talk on Friday at the annual convention of the Military Reporters and Editors Association was not the first time that General Sanchez has been critical of the administration.
He said in an interview in June with Agence France-Presse that the best the United States could achieve in Iraq would be stalemate. And 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."
Though General Sanchez remained on active duty after leaving Iraq in 2004, he never received a fourth star, in part because, though he was popular with Mr. Rumsfeld, the Bush administration feared that his nomination hearings in the Senate would turn into a bitter partisan fight and a public replay of the details of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
© 2007 The New York Times