- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Bush administration said yesterday that its diplomatic efforts in Iraq remained on track despite the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, but that the scandal has made its negotiating partners more cautious.

Such strains were obvious at a meeting yesterday between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who said the affair had cost the United States its “moral leadership” in the world.

The administration appears to be relying on the vigorous prosecution of those responsible for the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees to regain the respect and confidence of other nations.

U.S. embassies around the globe have been instructed to publicize all comments by senior U.S. officials on the subject, as well as every measure that the administration, Congress and the military are taking to determine the facts and punish those responsible, the State Department said.

In Baghdad, there was confusion about the progress toward the scheduled turnover of sovereignty to Iraqis, when U.S. officials did not confirm a statement by the head of an Iraqi tribunal that Saddam Hussein and members of his regime would be transferred to Iraqi custody for trial before June 30.

A new U.S.-appointed governor in the southern city of Najaf, meanwhile, offered to defer murder charges against Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr if the radical cleric disbands his Mahdi’s Army militia.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration is trying “to make foreign publics, foreign governments aware of the position, the strong stand” taken by President Bush against the prison abuses in Iraq.

In particular, it wants foreign governments to understand U.S. officials’ “determination to make sure that any criminal abuse that has occurred is punished [and] that any problems are fixed,” he said.

Mr. Boucher said the United States also was reminding other countries that it has “a larger agenda for the Middle East,” including commitment to the “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace, encouraging political and economic reforms in the region and the June 30 transfer of power in Iraq.

But he acknowledged there has been a “strong reaction” to the “very disruptive” and “graphic” images of acts performed by American soldiers.

“To say that we are satisfied that the message is getting through — well, it’s just hard to get any message through that … kind of reaction,” he said.

“At the same time,” Mr. Boucher said, “I think we do find our partners are looking to move forward [and] to accomplish some of the things that we’ve set out to accomplish together.”

A senior State Department official said some of Washington’s allies in Iraq, as well as other members of the U.N. Security Council, are “not as positive or willing” in their dealings with the United States as a result of the abuse scandal.

“It takes more time to negotiate, and they are not saying, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” but are more cautious and ask more questions, the official said.

The United States is preparing a U.N. resolution that would endorse Iraq’s interim government and support the U.S.-led multinational force remaining in the country.

Mr. Fischer, whose country is a Security Council rotating member, agreed, “It’s very important that we move forward.”

But, he said, Germany and other U.S. allies “need the moral leadership of the United States,” which has been gravely damaged.

“It’s important for the West — for all of us — and therefore we are looking forward that this situation will lead, I think, to a restoration of the leadership, of the moral leadership of the United States, because this is crucial for all of us,” he said.

As for the impact of the prison pictures on the efforts to establish an interim government in Baghdad, the senior official said Washington has handed the task to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in order to avoid accusations of selecting pro-American figures and is prepared to accept his recommendations.

“We’ll leave him to do his thing as long as he talks to Blackwill,” the official said, referring to Robert Blackwill, who is in charge of Iraq policy on the National Security Council.

Mr. Blackwill, a former ambassador to India, joined Mr. Brahimi on his current trip to Iraq. On Monday, Mr. Boucher said the two are not working as a team and have separate meetings.

But the senior State Department official said yesterday that they talk every day, suggesting that Mr. Brahimi would do nothing that has not been approved by Mr. Blackwill.

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