WASHINGTON - The top U.S. military officer in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, will be replaced as part of a command restructuring that has been in the works for several months, administration officials said Tuesday. The Pentagon also suspended Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski from her command.
Both have become symbols of lax supervision at the Abu Ghraib prison where U.S. soldiers allegedly abused Iraqi inmates.
President Bush praised Sanchez during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office. "Rick Sanchez has done a fabulous job," the president said as he met with a group of Iraqis. "He's been there for a long time. His service has been exemplary."
At the Pentagon, Larry Di Rita, chief spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said both Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers "are very impressed with the work Gen. Sanchez performed from the very beginning" of his service in Iraq. Sanchez took command there in May 2003.
Regarding suggestions that Sanchez's departure is linked to the abuse scandal, Di Rita said, "That's just wrong."
Karpinski and other officers in the 800th Military Police Brigade were faulted by Army investigators for paying too little attention to day-to-day operations of the Abu Ghraib prison and for not moving firmly enough to discipline soldiers for violating standard procedures.
Karpinski's suspension, which has not yet been announced by the Army, was the latest in a series of actions against officers and enlisted soldiers implicated in the abuse scandal at the prison near Baghdad.
Sanchez will be replaced in Iraq in what administration officials said was his scheduled rotation after 13 months of duty there. Gen. George Casey, the Army's No. 2 officer as vice chief of staff, was in line for the post, defense officials said Monday.
Di Rita said, "There has been no final decision" on who will replace Sanchez.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing Tuesday on CBS's "The Early Show," said he had heard the reports but could not say whether Sanchez's departure was in any way related to the prison abuse problem.
Powell did say, however, that "we all knew this was coming about as part of the normal rotation of commanders. General Sanchez has done a terrific job and he's been there for over a year now, so it seems to me in the normal scheme of things."
Last week, Spc. Jeremy Sivits received the maximum penalty of a year in prison and a bad-conduct discharge in the first court-martial stemming from the abuse of Iraqis at the prison. He was among seven members of the 372nd Military Police Company that have been charged.
Karpinski, who has returned to the United States, has not been charged with an offense. Being suspended from her command does not mean she has been relieved of command, so technically she could be reinstated, although the intensity of the international furor over the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse makes that highly unlikely, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I don't know what the grounds are," Karpinski told MSNBC Monday night. "I know that I've been suspended. When I see it in writing, there will be an explanation for it. And what that means is I'm suspended from my position as the commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, and they assign me to another position until whatever the reason is, whatever the basis is, is cleared."
In his widely cited investigation report on the Abu Ghraib abuse allegations, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba found heavy fault with Karpinski's performance and recommended that she be relieved of command and given a formal reprimand. Instead she was given a less-severe "memorandum of admonishment" on Jan. 17 by Sanchez.
Taguba reported that despite the documented abuse of prisoners, he saw no evidence that Karpinski ever attempted to remind the military police in her command of the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, which protect prisoners of war and civilian detainees in times of armed conflict.