WASHINGTON - President Bush apologized yesterday for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers and said he had scolded Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for his handling of the scandal. But the president rejected calls to oust Rumsfeld.
"I told him I should have known about the pictures and the report," Bush said. He was referring to graphic photos that have documented mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners and an Army report that faulted U.S. soldiers for "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses."
Several congressional Democrats have called for Rumsfeld's resignation over the growing crisis, which has infuriated the Arab world and raised questions about the leadership of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Bush acknowledged that the scandal marked a "stain on our country's honor," and vowed that "the wrongdoers will be brought to justice." In a White House appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah II, he said he had told the king he was "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families."
But he said of Rumsfeld: "He's an important part of my Cabinet, and he'll stay in my Cabinet."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, was the highest-ranking Democrat to call for Rumsfeld's resignation. "The Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld oversees has become an island of unaccountability, ignoring the Geneva Conventions, our allies and common sense," she said, adding that Rumsfeld "must be held responsible for any cover-up" of the prisoner abuse charges.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said Rumsfeld should go, "for the good of our country, the safety of our troops and our image around the globe."
The defense secretary is under fire from members of both parties for failing to inform them earlier about the prison abuse investigation.
Today, Rumsfeld will join a group of military officials, including Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in testifying about the scandal at separate House and Senate hearings that are sure to be combative. Lawmakers say that besides seeking details about the prisoner mistreatment, they will explore the roles Rumsfeld and others might have played in creating conditions that led to the abuses.
The hearings, to be broadcast on several networks, will mark the second time within weeks that top Bush officials have had to respond at televised hearings to questions about their actions. Last month, several officials testified about the administration's response to terrorism warnings before Sept. 11, 2001.
"My principal objective is to get the maximum amount of facts available in the public domain," said Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services panel.
But Warner, like other congressional Republicans, said he was not calling for Rumsfeld's resignation. "I do not have any loss of confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld," he said.
Shock and anger at the prisoner mistreatment continued to ripple through Congress as fresh photos of prisoner humiliations at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad surfaced. Discussion of the scandal dominated House and Senate debate. One new photo showed a naked prisoner cowering at the end of a leash held by a U.S. soldier.
The House overwhelmingly passed a measure condemning the abuses and calling for "swift justice" for those responsible.
But the discussion in the House devolved into partisan sniping about the allegations and the entire Iraq war, with many Democrats faulting the administration and some Republicans accusing Democrats of politicizing the issue and undermining U.S. troops.
Fifty Democrats, including Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, opposed the resolution because it failed to order a congressional investigation of the prisoner abuse charges. (Except for Hoyer and two others, all the resolution's opponents had voted against authorizing war with Iraq.)
Cummings and several other Democrats echoed calls for Rumsfeld to resign.
"This administration views things from the point of [view that members of Congress will] make a lot of noise, and we can just hold on and hold out, and the storm will pass over," Cummings said. "This is going to be a storm that's very, very difficult to pass over."
Another Democrat, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, went so far as to file articles of impeachment against Rumsfeld, saying Congress should pursue them if he did not step down or was not fired by Bush.
"This rises to the point that it is a high crime and misdemeanor," Rangel said. But with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, there is virtually no chance that Congress would impeach Rumsfeld.
House Democrats pointed to the prison abuse allegations as evidence of broader problems with the administration's handling of operations in Iraq.
Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, argued that the U.S. mission in Iraq is undermanned and that many troops there are poorly trained and ill-equipped to perform their duties.