- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

A grim President Bush yesterday stood shoulder to shoulder with his national defense team at the Pentagon and strongly endorsed Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror. You’re doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude,” Mr. Bush said in the Eisenhower Dining Room in his latest expression of confidence in Mr. Rumsfeld.

But also yesterday, Mr. Bush went to Mr. Rumsfeld’s office at the Pentagon to view at least a dozen photographs of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners.

One senior White House official said the photos include some still images from one of at least two unreleased videotapes and show naked Iraqis being humiliated and mistreated in “a sexual way.”

“The president’s reaction was one of deep disgust and disbelief that anyone who wears our uniform would engage in such shameful and appalling acts,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said at the White House.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who apologized last week in a combative Senate hearing, warned Congress during his testimony that there are possibly hundreds of unseen images of abuse, including videotapes.

Dozens of already released photos showing U.S. troops abusing Iraqis, including shots of one prisoner wearing a leash and another featuring a leering female soldier posing by naked Iraqis with hoods over their heads, have led for calls from Democrats that Mr. Rumsfeld resign.

In a hastily scheduled speech from the Pentagon portraying solidarity at the highest levels, the president — with Mr. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his top generals at his side — called the photos “an insult to the Iraqi people and an affront to the most basic standards of morality and decency.”

But the already released photos, replayed on TV stations in the Middle East and splashed on the front pages of Arab newspapers since they emerged April 28, threaten to derail the war effort in Iraq and the planned transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.

“It has given some an excuse to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives,” Mr. Bush said, while adding that no one can doubt “that Iraq is better for being free from one of the most bloodiest tyrants the world has ever known.”

The president also sought to raise the spirits of the men and women in the military, which has been sullied by the photographs.

“I know how painful it is to see a small number dishonor the honorable cause in which so many are sacrificing. What took place in the Iraqi prison does not reflect the character of the more than 200,000 military personnel who have served in Iraq since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom,” he said.

The White House would not describe the contents of the new photos that Mr. Bush viewed yesterday. Mr. McClellan cited ongoing investigations and privacy concerns, and during his daily briefing, did not say whether the president thinks they should be released.

Mr. Bush also refused, twice, to answer that question at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, senators scheduled another hearing for today on the prisoner-abuse issue.

Witnesses at the hearing will include Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, author of a report that found numerous “sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, where the already released photos originated.

In addition, the Pentagon was working with congressional leaders to devise a process by which the lawmakers will be able to view the photographs while not compromising ongoing investigations.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Pentagon officials assured him that digital images would be shown to lawmakers but kept classified for the time being.

The Pentagon has agreed to send unreleased photos and at least one videotape to the Senate Armed Services Committee today, but senators had not determined when or under what circumstances they would be viewed by lawmakers.

Larry DiRita, spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld, told reporters that the Pentagon was discussing with the committee staff the options for showing the additional photos and video “in a restricted environment.”

In other developments, a new report by the International Committee of the Red Cross said coalition intelligence officers estimated that 70 percent to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees were arrested by mistake and said Red Cross observers witnessed U.S. officers mistreating Abu Ghraib prisoners by keeping them naked in total darkness in empty cells.

The report said “high-value detainees” were singled out for special mistreatment. The report did not specify them, but the Associated Press reported they included some of the 55 top officials in Saddam Hussein’s regime who were named in a deck of cards given to troops.

Mr. Bush, who reiterated that military leaders are investigating whether prisoner abuse is “systemic” in U.S. facilities in Iraq, said yesterday that those responsible for the acts will be punished.

“Some soldiers have already been charged, and those involved will answer for their conduct in an orderly and transparent process. We will honor rule of law. All prison operations in Iraq will be thoroughly reviewed to make certain that such offenses are not repeated,” he said.

Regardless, Mr. Bush said the United States would make good on its pledge to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.

“Men and women across the Middle East are watching closely. And they will see America keep its word,” the president said.

In what the White House called a “previously scheduled briefing,” Mr. Bush met for more than an hour yesterday at the Pentagon with Gens. Richard B. Myers and Peter Pace, chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Powell, CIA Director George J. Tenet and John D. Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Gen. John Abizaid, top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, joined via a secure teleconferencing line.

During Mr. Bush’s speech, his top aides appeared somber. All stood with their hands hanging by their sides except for Mr. Rumsfeld, who stood with his hands clasped behind his back. The president, looking extremely grim, read his statement from a folder resting on the podium and did not smile.

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