WASHINGTON — The Pentagon plans to promote Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, former head of military operations in Iraq, risking a confrontation with members of Congress because of the prisoner abuses that occurred during his tenure.
Senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have privately told colleagues they are determined to pin a fourth star on Sanchez, two senior defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said this week.
Rumsfeld and others recognize that Sanchez remains politically "radioactive," in the words of a third senior defense official, and would wait until after the Nov. 2 presidential election and investigations of the Abu Ghraib scandal have faded before putting his name forward.
Top Pentagon strategists do not have a specific four-star job in mind for Sanchez, and the officials conceded that the appointment would probably not occur if Bush were defeated in his reelection bid by Democratic rival Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has made his criticism of the conduct in the war a centerpiece of his campaign.
Among his duties in Iraq, Sanchez oversaw all detention facilities, including Abu Ghraib prison.
Support for the general among the senior-most policymakers in the Pentagon reflects the Bush administration's insistence that the prisoner abuse affair -- which began in Abu Ghraib outside of Baghdad and then drew scrutiny to military jails in Afghanistan and at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- was an aberration.
But an appointment would encourage a confrontation in the Senate, where Democrats and some Republicans who would have to approve the nomination have criticized Sanchez's oversight of Abu Ghraib and the conduct of the war.
"If they really felt comfortable about this and felt it was justifiable, they would do it before the election," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was skeptical of the timing.
A senior Senate Republican aide was more blunt.
"I would say that he would have a snowball's chance," the aide said, on condition of anonymity. "Somebody needs to be held accountable.... He failed in his leadership role."
Earlier this year, Sanchez was Rumsfeld's choice to take over the U.S. Southern Command, a post that would have elevated the three-star general to four stars. But his name was never formally offered after Senate Armed Services Committee members challenged Sanchez's role in overseeing the war and the Abu Ghraib prison affair.
Sanchez is the highest-ranking Latino in the military, and would be the first to become one of the 33 four-star generals and full admirals, which are the highest permanent rank.
"He commands a tremendous amount of respect. And what a tough job he had. He gets credit for that," an Army official said on condition of anonymity. "If calmer heads can prevail, they'll look at a soldier whose capability exceeds all those things."
A powerful constituency is pressing for Sanchez's promotion. Sanchez, who has commanded the Army 5th Corps in Germany since June, is widely respected throughout the military, and his rise from humble beginnings to one of the nation's highest-profile military positions has made him a powerful symbol in the Latino community.
"Sanchez was born in the equivalent of a log cabin -- no running water, a self-made man," said Charles Krohn, who retired last year as an aide to former Army Secretary Thomas E. White. "Anything perceived as an Anglo plot to hold Sanchez responsible for the sins of others would be looked upon with great disfavor."
Nevertheless, Sanchez would face scrutiny for his oversight of Abu Ghraib and his supervision of the war during a time when the Iraqi insurgency wrested control of a number of cities from the U.S.-led coalition. In a Sept. 9 report to Congress, former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger found that Sanchez was "responsible" for creating an environment that contributed to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but not directly "culpable."
Schlesinger defended Sanchez against formal censure, suggesting that his career was effectively over.
"Gen. Sanchez likely would have gotten his fourth star, and now is unlikely to get his fourth star," Schlesinger said. "That is a kind of comment on failed responsibility."
A Sanchez promotion could also engender criticism in the Middle East, where Abu Ghraib has become an anti-American rallying cry.
"It'll just be one more thumb in the eye of the Iraqis and the Arab world," said Charles V. Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "If Sanchez gets another star, it's just more evidence that we're not trying to deal with the hearts and mind issues inside Iraq or the larger Islamic world."