Bush tries to quell Muslim uproar

Guilty will be punished, president tells Arab TV

Crisis In Iraq

May 06, 2004|By Paul West, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Hermann | Paul West, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In an attempt to quell the uproar in the Muslim world over American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, President Bush assured an Arabic language television network yesterday that "people will be held to account" for the "horrible" and "abhorrent abuses."

The president did not offer an apology or suggest that senior members of his administration would take responsibility. But he acknowledged that the week-old scandal had inflicted "terrible" damage on America's image in the Middle East.

"This is a serious matter," a somber-looking Bush said in an interview with Al-Arabiya, a satellite television channel based in the United Arab Emirates. "It's a matter that reflects badly on my country. I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, `This isn't a country that I've been told about.'

"The people in the Middle East must understand that this was horrible," Bush said.

The interview - one of two he gave yesterday to Arabic-language television networks - was part of a full-scale effort by the administration to try to limit political damage at home and overseas.

Investigations are being conducted into the deaths of 14 prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, including two homicides, and the abuse of at least 10 others. Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the inquiries could bring more cases to light.

Six Army reservists from a military police unit based near Cumberland, Md., are accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners and are the only ones charged criminally in the scandal. Military investigations of the six are nearly done, and Army officials said public trials could begin soon.

The Senate intelligence committee received a classified briefing yesterday from Defense Department and intelligence officials about the allegations. Emerging from the session, Sen. Pat Roberts, the panel's chairman, said he had received no information indicating that intelligence personnel were culpable.

"So far, there appears to be no evidence of intelligence personnel that directed any of the abuses, but the investigation does continue," said Roberts, a Kansas Republican.

That statement seems at odds with the conclusions of a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The classified report found that military intelligence officers encouraged Army Reserve MPs to "set physical and mental conditions for the favorable interrogation of witnesses."

`Justice will be served'

Bush, in the interviews, repeatedly characterized the abuses as the actions of a "few people" and stressed that they do "not represent America."

Answering questions in the Map Room, an American flag in the background, the president promised the people of the Middle East that "we will investigate fully" and that "justice will be served."

"What took place in that prison," Bush said, "does not represent [the] America that I know." He said he did not learn about the photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners until they were shown on television last week.

Bush was compelled to draw a distinction between his government and that of Saddam Hussein after an interviewer from the Al-Hurra network said the images of Iraqis being abused at Abu Ghraib prison, where the dictator's henchmen had tortured Iraqis, had led many Arabs to feel that the United States behaved no better.

The Iraqi people, Bush said, should understand that "in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made." But Hussein's "trained torturers were never brought to justice under his regime. There were no investigations about mistreatment of people."

In a similar vein, the president tried to put the best face on mounting outrage on Capitol Hill about his administration's failure to warn members of Congress about details of the investigation of the abuses.

"Our Congress asks pointed questions to the leadership," he said. "That stands in contrast to dictatorships. A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this. ... A dictator wouldn't admit reforms needed to be done.

"We have nothing to hide," Bush told Al-Hurra, a U.S.-sponsored network that is seen by few Iraqis, according to a recent Gallup poll. At the end of the interview, Bush told the correspondent, "Good job."

Bush also sought to reassure the Arab world that he isn't contemplating military action against other repressive regimes, such as Syria.

"Iraq was a unique situation," Bush said, "because Saddam Hussein had constantly defied the world and had threatened his neighbors, had used weapons of mass destruction, had terrorist ties, had torture chambers inside his country, had mass graves."

Bush defended his administration against criticism that the occupation of Iraq had led to an influx of foreign terrorists eager to fight Americans.

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