Retired US Iraq commander speaks out for Democrats

WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (Reuters) - The general who led U.S. forces in Iraq after the invasion launched by Republican President George W. Bush spoke out for Democrats on Saturday, backing legislation aimed at withdrawing American troops.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, in the Democratic weekly radio address, acknowledged that Bush’s escalation strategy this year had improved security in Iraq. But he said Iraqi political leaders had failed to make “hard choices necessary to bring peace to their country.”

“There is no evidence that the Iraqis will choose to do so in the near future or that we have an ability to force that result,” said Sanchez, an increasingly vocal critic of what he called Bush administration policy failures in Iraq.

He endorsed the latest attempt by Democrats in the House of Representatives to use Iraq-war funding legislation to push for a reduction of U.S. troops. The House passed a measure last week that would have set a goal of withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by Dec. 15, 2008, but Republicans in the Senate blocked it.

Such attempts have regularly failed to overcome Bush’s opposition and a reduction in violence in recent months has eased some of the political pressure on the White House for a change in strategy.

But Sanchez urged a rapid cut in the U.S. military presence by shifting the troops’ main mission away from combat, and he said the House measure “makes the proper preparation” for a troop reduction.

“It is well past time to adopt a new approach in Iraq that will improve chances to produce stability in the Middle East,” he said. “I urge our political leaders to put aside partisan considerations and unite to lessen the burden our troops and their families have been under for nearly five years.”

The Pentagon said Iraq strategy should be guided by current commanders there. Spokesman Bryan Whitman, asked about Sanchez’s remarks, said, “I think our military commanders that are on the ground in Iraq today are in the best position to make recommendations to the nation’s leadership about the progress that’s being made and the best strategy to embark upon.”

Sanchez commanded the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq from June 2003 until July 2004 as the anti-U.S. insurgency took hold. He retired in 2006 and blamed the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal for wrecking his career.

Last month Sanchez blamed the Bush administration for a “catastrophic failure” in leadership of the war, saying it had left the United States mired in Iraq with no clear way out.

He said in the radio address that it would take at least a decade for the U.S. Army to recover from the war’s degradation to military readiness.

Sanchez also endorsed a provision in the House legislation that would have required all U.S. government employees -- such as CIA agents -- to abide by the U.S. Army’s field manual on interrogations.

The manual bans internationally condemned interrogation techniques such as “waterboarding,” or simulated drowning, which the CIA is believed to have used on at least three terrorism suspects since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. (Editing by David Alexander and Bill Trott)