Powell faults Arab silence on beheading

Secretary criticizes leaders' slow response, contrast to prison fury

Calls for `higher level of outrage'

2002 memo on treatment of prisoners not recalled

Crisis In Iraq

May 17, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell admonished Arab leaders yesterday, saying they should have shown "a higher level of outrage" over the beheading of an American civilian in Iraq after they had expressed furor over the mistreatment of Iraqi detainees at a prison outside Baghdad.

"When you are outraged at what happened at the prison," Powell said on Fox News Sunday, "you should be equally, doubly outraged" over the execution of Nicholas Berg.

Berg, 26, was kidnapped while seeking work in Iraq for his communications business, and a videotape of his execution was posted on an Islamic Web site last week. U.S. officials have said they believe the masked man who killed him was al-Qaida-linked terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Powell's comments came in several television interviews from Southern Shuneh, Jordan, as he was traveling in the Middle East seeking to mend fences with Arab leaders over the Iraq war and prison abuses and confer with leaders over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His remarks reflect a sense of anger and frustration within the Bush administration that Arab leaders for weeks voiced fury over the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison but then failed to immediately condemn Berg's death.

In the video, Berg's killers said they were seeking retribution for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Initially after the video was posted, there was little reaction from the Arab world. Nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Islamic militant organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, have now condemned the killing.

"I think [there] should be a higher level of outrage," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press. "There is anger in the Arab world about some of our actions, but that is no excuse for any silence on the part of any Arab leader for this kind of murder. This kind of murder is unacceptable in anyone's religion, in anybody's political system, that is a political system based on any kind of understanding and respect for human rights."

The prison scandal has scarred American credibility in the Arab world, and the incidents at Abu Ghraib seem to be eroding President Bush's political standing. Bush's job approval ratings fell to a personal low of 42 percent in a Newsweek poll released yesterday, and only 35 percent of the respondents said they approve of his handling of Iraq, down from 44 percent last month. Still, Bush remains in a statistical dead heat with presumptive Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, according to the poll.

Powell also acknowledged that when he came before the United Nations in February last year to help Bush make the case for war in Iraq, the intelligence he used was "inaccurate and wrong." He had been asked about a CIA source who, according to some reports, misled the agency when compiling intelligence suggesting Iraq was trying to use trucks and trains to deliver chemical and biological weapons.

Powell said on the NBC telecast yesterday that he was "comfortable that at the time I made the presentation, it reflected the collective judgment, the sound judgment of the intelligence community." He added: "It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong, and in some cases deliberately misleading. And for that, I am disappointed and I regret it."

The secretary did his round of interviews as the administration continued to try to contain fallout from the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Lawmakers are investigating whether members of a military police brigade at the prison acted on their own, or whether military or administration officials in the chain of command set an atmosphere that encouraged the abuse.

He was asked on NBC about a report in this week's edition of Newsweek saying that Alberto R. Gonzales, the chief White House Counsel, delivered a memo to Bush in January 2002 that said the military did not have to strictly follow the Geneva Conventions when questioning "enemy prisoners."

If true, the report would suggest that as early as two years ago, well before the war in Iraq, the president's closest aides were questioning whether such prisoners had to be treated under the rules, which protect the rights of prisoners of war.

"As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war," Gonzales reportedly wrote. "In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

A White House spokesman, Allen Abney, said yesterday he could neither confirm nor deny the report on a Gonzales memo. But he said that "our most important responsibility is to protect the American people and we act in an appropriate manner to meet that responsibility."

"It is the policy of the United States to comply with all of our laws and treaty obligations," he added. Publicly, U.S. officials have said that Iraqis who have been taken into custody in the current campaign are protected by the accord.

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