WASHINGTON – Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who led U.S. forces in Iraq for a year after the March 2003 invasion, accused the Bush administration Friday of going to war with a “catastrophically flawed” plan and said the United States is “living a nightmare with no end in sight.”

Sanchez also bluntly criticized the current troop increase in Iraq, describing it as “a desperate attempt by the administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war.”

“The administration, Congress and the entire interagency, especially the State Department, must shoulder the responsibility for this catastrophic failure, and the American people must hold them accountable,” Sanchez told military reporters and editors. “There has been a glaring unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders.”

Sanchez lashed out specifically at the National Security Council, calling officials there negligent and incompetent, without offering details. He also blasted war policies over the past four years, which he said had stripped senior military officers of responsibility and thus thrust the armed services into an “intractable position” in Iraq.

“The best we can do with this flawed approach is stave off defeat,” Sanchez said in a speech to the Military Reporters and Editors’ annual conference in Arlington, Va. “Without bipartisan cooperation, we are destined to fail. There is nothing going on in Washington that would give us hope.”

He faulted the administration for failing to “communicate effectively that reality to the American people.”

But Sanchez offered little advice about fixing military problems in Iraq, instead saying that current efforts generally need more resources and skill. “From a catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan to the administration’s latest surge strategy, this administration has failed to employ and synchronize its political, economic and military power,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez led Combined Joint Task Force 7 in Iraq beginning on June 15, 2003. Under his command, an insurgency erupted in Iraq and he and other top officers were slow to respond to it, in part because of the reluctance of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials to recognize its existence.

Some officials thought the anti-U.S. attacks would fade away after Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003, but instead the insurgency intensified, with pitched battles the next spring in Najaf and Fallujah.

Some analysts have argued that Sanchez had little feel for strategy and permitted commanders to use tactics that were counterproductive and helped intensify opposition to the U.S. presence in the country.

But Sanchez may be best remembered for being the top general in Iraq during the period when the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison occurred and was later revealed. Photographs of Iraqi detainees being humiliated shocked many, and provoked a reevaluation of the U.S. presence in Iraq. After those disclosures, some enlisted troops and Army Reserve officers were charged, but in legal proceedings and official reviews no top commanders were deemed responsible for the scandal.

Sanchez retired after more senior defense officials, fearing that a public confirmation hearing would go badly in light of the abuse allegations, decided not to give him a fourth star. He is now a senior mentor at the military’s Joint Warfighting Center.

Although he would not address the Abu Ghraib abuse directly, Sanchez said after his speech that Abu Ghraib was a “difficult issue,” and that it is important generally to address the way the United States treats its detainees. He declined to say whether he thinks he was scapegoated by the Army and declined to name senior leaders he believes failed at developing war strategy, saying several times: “More to follow later.”

He told reporters in response to questions that when he assumed command in Iraq, he realized the situation had come unglued, in large part because there was high-level disregard for addressing what U.S. forces should do after the major combat operations conquered Baghdad. He said the U.S. presence has been an occupation.

Although he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” during his tenure in Iraq, he said his ability to make the war strategy work was limited by the administration’s decision to restrict the military’s authority over postwar civil administration and reconstruction.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on Sanchez’s remarks. NSC spokeswoman Kate Starr said: “We appreciate his service to the country. As General (David) Petraeus and Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker said, there’s more work to be done but progress is being made in Iraq. And that’s what we’re focused on now.”

Sanchez’s former aides have described him as highly critical of decisions made by the leader of the U.S. occupation authority, L. Paul Bremer, who issued orders disbanding Iraq’s army and banning many mid-level members of the former Baath Party from government jobs.

Sanchez opened by criticizing the U.S. news media, saying he was unfairly labeled “a liar” and “a torturer” because of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and he alleged that the media have lost their sense of ethics. He said that members of the media blow stories out of proportion and are unwilling to correct mistakes, and that the “media environment is doing a great disservice to the nation.”

Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and Peter Baker in Miami contributed to this report.

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