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A General's High-Stakes Fight

'If we don't win here, the next battleground will be the streets of America,' the top U.S. commander in Iraq says.

September 14, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — To get to see Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, you pass through four security checks and two body searches and then are driven past high concrete barricades, earth-filled barriers and helixes of barbed wire deep into the bowels of one of Saddam Hussein's more splendid former palaces stretched out on the bank of the Tigris.

His office is in the security-sanitized swath of Baghdad known as the "green zone," an area where English is the language, guns must be cleared before entering and people jog in shorts and T-shirts as though they were back home in the USA.

Just beyond the bubble, however, Sanchez, who has become the public face of the U.S. military effort, faces a world of trouble.

Sanchez is the plain-spoken tank officer who in June took command of the coalition forces in Iraq, who now number 134,000. On his shoulders falls a set of herculean responsibilities: carrying out the hunt for Hussein, eliminating an Iraqi resistance that is killing several U.S. service members a week, deterring foreign fighters and suspected Islamic terrorists who are entering Iraq, and supplying most of the immediate security and logistical support for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Sanchez grew up "dirt poor" in Texas, brought up on welfare, one of six children raised by his mother after his parents divorced, in what he described as the poorest county in America.

"My way out was to join the military," said Sanchez, one of the few Latino generals in the U.S. Army. "Fortunately I had an ROTC scholarship [at Texas A&I University] that allowed me to go to college and get my degree and commission."

Now the 52-year-old Rio Grande native, dressed in crisp desert camouflage with a pistol holstered at his side, is out to convince the doubters that given enough time and resources, his soldiers can make the U.S. presence in Iraq a success.

It's a goal that more and more Americans are worrying about as casualties mount, insurgents appear to operate unfettered and mistakes like the "friendly fire" shooting deaths of at least eight Iraqi law enforcement officers by U.S. forces near Fallouja on Friday fan anti-American passions. And he realizes that addressing those doubts is now part of his job description.

"A critical aspect of this operation," he said, "is to make sure we are selling -- not selling, but to make sure that America and the international community understand the reality on the ground."

During the course of a wide-ranging interview Friday, Sanchez called the shooting of the Iraqi officers a "tragic event" of a kind that is often unavoidable in wartime. He also asked for continued support and patience from the American people.

"Something that needs to be communicated across all of America ... is that America's sons and daughters are doing a fabulous job here," he said. "The sacrifices that we're making are not in vain -- they are truly making an impact on this country."

Echoing President Bush's statements linking the war to topple Saddam Hussein to the war on terrorism, Sanchez said the stakes were too high to think of quitting. "We've got to realize that this is a critical battlefield for America itself. This is where we have to win.... I am absolutely convinced that if we don't win here, the next battleground will be the streets of America. We can't allow that to happen."

With thick black hair, a broad face and a soft, aw-shucks Texan manner, Sanchez's demeanor suggests a belief that the job is tough, but that everything remains under control and will move forward.

A year from now, he said, he hopes he will be back with his family in a U.S. Army base in Germany and that Iraqis will have been left with a "stable and secure" country.

"I do hope by that point in time the people of Iraq have been absolutely convinced that the Saddam regime is never going to return," he said. "And I hope that they've also made a commitment towards securing their own country and eliminating some of this terrorist activity that is hurting them probably a lot more than it is hurting the American forces here today."

Sanchez said he wanted to enlist in the Army straight from high school to emulate his older half-brother who served in Vietnam. At the time, he wanted to go there and fight, but his brother convinced him to go to college instead and that "the war would be waiting for me."

As it turned out, it wasn't. He graduated in 1973 as a first lieutenant, just missing the war in Southeast Asia.

Some critics see a new Vietnam starting up in Iraq, but Sanchez rejects the parallel. His troops are facing not a guerrilla war, he said, but "a low-intensity conflict environment" that a single battalion would be enough to handle militarily.

What he needs most, he said, is "actionable intelligence ... that will allow us to strike at these cells and these terrorists that are out there." For a guerrilla war to succeed, he said, it must possess two things: a unifying ideology and popular support. So far, he insists, he does not see either in Iraq.

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