WASHINGTON (AP) – The Army has cleared four top officers – including the three-star general who commanded all U.S. forces in Iraq – of all allegations of wrongdoing in connection with prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and will not be punished, officials said Friday.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who became the senior commander in Iraq in June 2003, two months after the fall of Baghdad, had been faulted in earlier investigations for leadership lapses that may have contributed to prisoner abuse. He is the highest ranking officer to face official allegations of leadership failures in Iraq, but he has not been accused of criminal violations.

After assessing the allegations against Sanchez and taking sworn statements from 37 people involved in Iraq, the Army’s inspector general, Lt. Gen. Stanley E. Green, concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated, said the officials who were familiar with the details of Green’s probe.

Green reached the same conclusion in the cases of two generals and a colonel who worked for Sanchez.

The officials who disclosed the findings spoke only on condition of anonymity because Congress has not yet been fully briefed on Green’s findings and the information has not yet been publicly released. Green had scrutinized the actions of Sanchez and 11 other officers.

Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were physically abused and sexually humiliated by military police and intelligence soldiers in the fall of 2003. Photos of some of the abuse created a firestorm of criticism worldwide.

Congress has hotly debated the question of accountability among senior Army and Defense Department officials who were in positions of responsibility on Iraq detention and interrogation policy. Some Democrats have accused the Pentagon of foisting all the blame onto low-ranking soldiers.

In a statement Friday that did not mention specific cases, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said that as soon as all Pentagon assessments of accountability are complete he will hold a hearing “to examine the adequacy of those reviews” and to hear senior civilian and military officials address the issue.

Warner said he strongly agrees with one investigation report that concluded last year that commanders should be held accountable for their action or inaction and that military as well as civilian leaders in the Pentagon “share this burden of responsibility.”

The office of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, declined to comment on the matter.

Some have said the blame should rest with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, although none of the 10 investigations done so far has concluded that he was directly at fault.

Asked about public expectations of punishment for senior officers associated with Abu Ghraib, the Army’s chief public affairs officer, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, said the Army went to great lengths to make its investigations thorough and fair, with no preconceived judgments.

“The thoroughness of the investigative process preserves the rights of all individuals involved while ensuring that the presumption of innocence must be disproved by facts before any allegation is determined to be substantiated,” Brooks said.

In an interview Friday, three senior defense officials associated with the Green investigations cited mitigating circumstances in the Sanchez case, including the fact that his organization in Iraq, known as Combined Joint Task Force 7, initially was short of the senior officers it required. They also cited other complicating factors, including the upsurge in insurgent violence shortly after Sanchez took command and the intense pressure the military faced in hunting down Saddam Hussein, who was in hiding and thought to have a hand in the insurgency.

The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sanchez has been at the center of the Abu Ghraib controversy from its start.

He issued a policy on acceptable interrogation techniques on Sept. 14, 2003, then revised it on Oct. 12, about the time the abuses were happening. The Army inspector general found in an investigation last year that the policies were ambiguous and subject to misinterpretation by soldiers.

A separate investigation by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger concluded that Sanchez should have taken stronger action in November 2003 when he realized the extent of problems among military intelligence and military police units running Abu Ghraib.

A subsequent Army investigation, made public last summer in what was called the Kern-Fay-Jones report, concluded that although Sanchez and his most senior deputies were not directly involved in the bases at Abu Ghraib, their “action and inaction did indirectly contribute” to some abuses.

Sanchez remains commander of the Army’s 5th Corps, based in Germany. It is unclear whether he will be promoted to four-star ranking and given another assignment after he finishes with 5th Corps.

Sanchez and his former top deputy, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, were cited in the Kern-Fay-Jones report for failure to “ensure proper staff oversight of detention and interrogation operations” in Iraq, specifically at the Abu Ghraib prison.

It was left to Green, the Army inspector general, to weigh the gravity of the various allegations against Sanchez and other senior officers and determine whether they could be substantiated. In only one case – that of Janis Karpinski, an Army Reserve brigadier general who commanded the 800th Military Police Brigade at Abu Ghraib – did Green decide that the allegations were substantiated. She has been suspended from her command and given a written reprimand.

In addition to clearing Sanchez, the Army inspector general has determined that there should be no punishment given to Wojdakowski or to Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, who was Sanchez’s intelligence chief in Baghdad, or to Col. Mark Warren, Sanchez’s top legal adviser at the time.

In addition to those five cases, which have been the main focus of attention by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Green examined allegations against seven other senior officers, all at or above the rank of colonel. The names of the seven have not been disclosed, and it is not yet known how many – if any – will be punished. One of the seven cases is not yet closed.

Those seven others do not include two accused officers whose cases are being considered by field commanders rather than by the Army inspector general because they face possible criminal charges. Those two are Col. Thomas Pappas, commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade at Abu Ghraib, and Lt. Col. Stephen Jordan, who directed the prison’s interrogation center.

Fast was promoted to two-star general and given command of Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and its Army Intelligence Center.

After her change-of-command ceremony at Huachuca last month, Fast said of the Abu Ghraib debacle, “Could I have done something to prevent this? I think we all ask ourselves that question.”

AP-ES-04-22-05 1921EDT

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