Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez gestures during a press conference in Baghdad.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez gestures during a press conference in Baghdad. (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

(Click here for the full transcript of Stripes' interview with Lt. Gen. Sanchez.)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Pentagon’s top commander in Iraq said complaints about morale are “expected,” but troops are focused and they understand and support the mission.

“Are you going to find soldiers on any given day who are down on morale? Of course,” said Lt. Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. “There are days when I wake up and don’t feel very good and I’d probably bite your head off. I walk around and talk to all sorts of soldiers also, and I honestly believe our soldiers are doing very, very well. There is no morale problem.”

Complaints about morale, living conditions and other issues surfaced in a Stars and Stripes survey of nearly 2,000 troops in Iraq.

Sanchez said complaints are “an Army’s normal posture. What would be the difference if we were back in [Europe] or Fort Hood or wherever?”

More importantly, he added, “I guarantee you that if you ask a soldier if he’s focused on his mission, does he understand the criticality of his mission, I think you find that a majority of them really do understand why we’re here and the implications of us not succeeding.”

Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the troops surveyed said the war in Iraq was “worthwhile” or “very worthwhile.” Almost a third said the war was of “little value” or “not worthwhile at all.” Similarly, two thirds said their mission was clear, while a third disagreed.

“I think the missions we have are very clear,” Sanchez said. “One, conduct offensive operations against noncompliant forces. The second one is stability and support operations in our zone.”

Where there is confusion, he said, it likely comes from the blending of those two missions across a country that is as diverse as it is big.

“Each of my major subordinate commands has a totally different environment that they’re operating under,” Sanchez said. “And then to further break it down inside a division, different sectors within the division have totally different environments.

“That’s a fairly significant challenge, being able to piece that together to the overall mission of the country,” he said. “Even at the brigade [level], that can be problematic because such dynamic conditions exist. In some cases you’re going from stability and support operations in one small area and then transition into a low-intensity conflict area very, very rapidly.”

He points to Baghdad, where more than 40 of the nearly 100 U.S. combat fatalities have occurred since President Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1.

“This is probably one of the most complex environments. It’s much more complex that Kosovo was. Just in sheer size and then all the different dynamics that are playing here. So that can be fairly confusing for a young soldier on the ground.”

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