WASHINGTON - Saddam Hussein, once rarely portrayed in anything but crisp military uniforms or elegant business suits, showed up in photographs yesterday clad only in baggy white briefs. The Pentagon was not amused.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad, Iraq, and Washington said they were investigating how the pictures came to be taken and how they became public. The officials expressed concern that the photography may have violated Hussein's rights under the Geneva Conventions' regulation of the treatment of prisoners.
Asked whether the picture of the former Iraqi leader might inflame tensions and inspire the anti-American insurgency there, President Bush said: "I don't think a photo inspires murderers. I think they're inspired by an ideology that is so barbaric and backwards that it's hard for many in the Western world to comprehend how they think."
Hussein, captured by U.S. forces 17 months ago and in the legal custody of the Iraqi government, is being held in a cell at the U.S.-run Camp Cropper at the Baghdad airport, which once bore his name. He is expected to go on trial this year on suspicion of war crimes.
The photographs ran yesterday morning in two tabloid newspapers, the London Sun and the New York Post. The London Sun wrote: "He was once the world's most feared despot with the blood of innocent thousands on his murderous hands. Now Saddam Hussein is reduced to shuffling around his prison compound in his underpants and washing his own dirty socks in a simple bowl."
An Iraqi television channel displayed the pictures in Baghdad yesterday afternoon as people were coming home from prayers on the Muslim Sabbath.
The U.S. military command in Baghdad said in a written statement that it did not know the source of the photographs and that they appeared to have been taken more than a year ago. One showed Hussein bare-chested in underwear; another showed him scrubbing a piece of clothing.
The statement said the pictures were taken "in clear violation" of Pentagon directives "and possibly Geneva Convention guidelines for the humane treatment of detained individuals."
It added: "We take seriously our responsibility to ensure the safety and security of all detainees. This lapse is being aggressively investigated to determine, if possible, who took the photos, and to ensure existing procedures and directives are complied with to prevent this from happening again."
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "We regret that somebody responsible for the care, custody and control of Saddam released these photos."
The White House drew a distinction between the pictures that appeared yesterday and those released by the military shortly after Hussein was captured Dec. 13, 2003.
The earlier pictures "were released for overriding needs of security - to demonstrate to the Iraqi people and the insurgents that Saddam Hussein was in fact in custody," the White House said in a statement released in response to questions asked at the daily news briefing. "The recent release of photos had no such justification."
The incident raised anew questions about the United States' handling of prisoners in Iraq, coming on top of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and at the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It risked further inflaming anger among Arabs wary that the United States is insensitive to Muslim beliefs and culture. Muslims take particular care to avoid appearing in public in less than full attire.
Hussein's lawyers would not comment directly on the photographs. But one, Giovanni di Stefano, complained in an interview with CNN that his client had not been formally charged with a crime.
"Never mind about photographs of Saddam Hussein in his underpants," the lawyer said.
But at a critical moment in the political process in Iraq, with the new government trying to gain stability, the picture could be seen as a slap at Sunni Iraqis who are feeling disenfranchised and humiliated. Hussein is a Sunni and under his regime, the Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority.
Basama Abdullah, 25, a government worker in Baghdad, said, "Regardless of whatever he was before, he is still an Iraqi. ... The goal of showing these pictures is to put shame on the Iraqis."
"This is very shameful and sad for all Iraqis," said Rita Yago, 35, another government worker in Baghdad, who contrasted the photographs with those seen of Hussein "for 30 years looking respectable on TV."
But Raad Khafaji, 42, a teacher in Baghdad, asked why a fuss was being made about the pictures.
He said that Hussein had once been pictured in a lake in Ramadi swimming with his children "in the same size pants as we saw him now."
Others were less kind.
"Saddam Hussein and his regime were bloody and practiced mass killing against the people; therefore, whatever happens to Saddam, whether he is photographed naked or washing his clothes, it means nothing to me. That's the least he deserves," said Hawre Saliee, 38, a Kurd.