WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials plan to replace the top ground commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, with a higher-ranking officer leading a new command structure, defense officials said Monday.
The successor is expected to be the Army's second-in-command, Gen. George W. Casey, officials said.
Sanchez's departure has been long foreseen, said Defense Department officials speaking on condition of anonymity. They insisted that it was unrelated to his job performance during an occupation that has faced an Iraqi insurgency and the growing scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib prison.
Military officials on Sunday denied a report in the Washington Post that Sanchez had been present for some of the incidents of abuse at Abu Ghraib. However, Sanchez has drawn criticism for allowing military intelligence officials to oversee the detention of some "high-value" prisoners by military police, who usually serve under their own MP commander.
The news about Sanchez came the same day that Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, commander of the brigade that oversaw the guard staff at the prison, told The Times that she had received an e-mail telling her she was being suspended from duty.
Under a scenario advocated by Army Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, Sanchez, a three-star general, would be replaced by a four-star general, elevating the status of the U.S. presence in Iraq to a new regional command, defense officials said. That move would require congressional approval.
"Sanchez being replaced has been the plan forever," one senior defense official said. "The entire time there was a plan for Multinational Forces Iraq. The plan was for Sanchez to stand it up and then turn it over to someone else."
"He's been there going on 14 months now," another senior defense official said. "Anybody trying to draw a line between the natural progression of looking for somebody to rotate into that position to the alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib would be just wrong. There's absolutely no connection whatever."
However, when the plan for reorganizing the command structure in Iraq was initially reported in January, Abizaid told defense reporters that Sanchez would stay on to oversee the fight against the insurgency. Pentagon officials gave no reason for the change.
It was unknown what Sanchez's next assignment would be.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, now Sanchez's second-in-command, would probably continue to oversee daily operations in the coalition's efforts to improve security and quell a stubborn and bloody guerrilla insurgency, Pentagon insiders said.
The new command structure is designed to improve oversight of Iraq and communication between the military leadership and the civilian leadership of the occupation. The Coalition Provisional Authority, led by L. Paul Bremer III, intends to hand over sovereignty June 30 to an interim Iraqi government. The top U.S. official will then be John D. Negroponte, who was recently confirmed as ambassador. The new four-star general will work closely with Negroponte on overall political and military planning.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is said by Pentagon insiders to favor Casey, who as vice chief of staff is the second-highest-ranking uniformed Army officer.
But some defense officials said he has not been named as the next leader of the U.S.-led coalition's military forces in Iraq out of fear that it would jeopardize his chances for confirmation by a Congress that is unhappy with the Pentagon. Lawmakers are already irate over what they see as the small amount of information they have received about the Abu Ghraib scandal, so they might want more consultation before an announcement of the Pentagon's plans, the officials said.
"I would just tell you that if we had something like that to announce, we would, and that any speculation prior to an announcement would be irresponsible," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
In discussing her situation in a telephone interview from the New York area, Karpinski contended Monday that she had been "set up" by Army officials. About two months after the Red Cross warned U.S. commanders of widespread prisoner abuses, she said, Army officials had her sign a confidential letter to the Red Cross assuring that Iraqi detainees were being given the best treatment possible and that even more "improvements are continually being made."
Karpinski's account of the letter and the sequence of events that occurred as the Abu Ghraib scandal began to emerge contradicts those of her superiors, who have said they did not react to the abuses sooner because it took months for the reports of problems to rise to their level.
The first report of abuses at Abu Ghraib was given to Army officials by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in November. It was not until January, after an enlisted man working as a guard at Abu Ghraib passed photographs of abuses to his superiors, that senior Army officials began to investigate.