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Defense Officials: General Sanchez Reassignment Not Linked to Prison Scandal - 2004-05-25

Defense officials say the top U.S. commander in Iraq will be replaced, but they indicate the move is not imminent and categorically reject suggestions it has any connection to the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal.

Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez has been in Iraq for nearly 14 months, longer than most American military personnel deployed there.

That is why senior defense officials say he is due for reassignment and not, as some news reports have suggested, because General Sanchez has been singled out for punishment in connection with the abuse of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

President Bush voiced his backing for the U.S. commander in Iraq during an exchange with reporters at the White House.

?Rick Sanchez has done a fabulous job,? he said. ?He has been there for a long time. His service has been exemplary.?

One senior defense official tells VOA efforts in the news media to make a connection between the prisoner-abuse scandal and the General's replacement are what he calls "foul play." This official added, "there is absolutely no connection."

However, there has been some grumbling within the Pentagon that at least one high-ranking official might have to be sacrificed to stem world criticism of the detainee abuse controversy.

Criminal blame for the scandal has fallen on a handful of enlisted personnel, with the repercussions for officers limited to several reprimands.

General Sanchez had been linked to the scandal in a published news report that suggested he was not only aware of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, but had in some cases even been present while detainees were being mistreated.

Defense officials called the report false and said General Sanchez stood by his testimony to Congressional committees denying any prior knowledge of the abuses.

Military officials say General Sanchez has been in Iraq since April of last year, and took command of U.S. forces in June. In Baghdad a U.S. spokesman said the General is expected to depart sometime after the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities.