- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The worldwide furor over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers imperils troop morale at a crucial time, say lawmakers from both parties.

But what to do about it divides them, with Democrats blaming the Bush administration for creating a culture where it could happen and the Republicans accusing Democrats of hyping the situation in order to make political hay out of it.

“This happened in Vietnam,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. “It’s happened in other wars, where the troops wondered if people are really behind them.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, blamed Democrats who have been harshly critical of the war effort for eroding troop morale.

“I’m concerned that a number of members of Congress have lost their sense of balance,” he said. “They think their role here is to bash the American military. It is demoralizing for the troops.”

Mr. DeLay also targeted Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry for sending out a mass e-mail to supporters calling for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s removal and soliciting campaign cash. It’s “unconscionable,” he said, for Mr. Kerry to use the abuse scandal as a “fund-raising gimmick.”

“Frankly, it’s disgusting,” Mr. DeLay said.

During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings yesterday into the prison-abuse scandal, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, read one of the Kerry solicitations into the record and called them unprecedented.

“It goes on to demand that George Bush fire Donald Rumsfeld,” he said. “And then it goes on to a timeline, a chronology, and at the very last, it makes a solicitation for contributions. I don’t recall this ever having happened before in history.”

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said he also worries about troop morale, but blames the Bush administration for cultivating an atmosphere in the Abu Ghraib prison that allowed the abuse to occur.

“I am very concerned that we have compounded the individual actions with a policy that has clearly given to the world that this administration believes it can act as it sees fit without any outside check or balance,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Also, Mr. Hoyer said, the photos played into a perception that he said many foreigners already have of America as a renegade nation, acting virtually alone in the war on terrorism.

“This incident has been made worse by the world’s perception that this administration believes it can act in any way it sees fit without check,” he said.

But Mr. Hunter said that the attention already paid to the prison abuses has been more than enough and that it’s important not to let the actions of a few soldiers sully the reputations of 135,000 soldiers who are serving “honorably” in Iraq.

He also noted that the videotaped beheading of the American contractor from Philadelphia came in response to the public release of the abuse pictures and thus Mr. Rumsfeld was “exactly right” to keep the photos private and investigate according to regular military procedures.

Specifically, Mr. Hunter blamed the press “for being more interested in selling” advertisements “by airing these inflammatory pictures than they are about the lives of their fellow Americans.”

“All the people who had a hand in publishing those pictures should think long and hard about what their responsibility was for the beheading of this American,” Mr. Hunter said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said he, too, is concerned that people might “paint the entire military effort with a broad brush and fail to recognize the incredible contribution and the lives lost.”

“I don’t think we should in any way denigrate the commitment, the contribution and the manner with which our military overall has conducted itself,” Mr. Daschle said. “The exception shouldn’t be made the rule, either perceptively or in fact, and I think it’s critical that that distinction be emphasized every time we talk about this.”

Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, remembers the message soldiers got from home when he was serving as a Marine in Vietnam.

“When you publicly criticize … you are affecting the conduct of the war,” he said. “You are sending a message to the enemy. You are sending a message to our own troops.”

Also yesterday, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, crossed the line on Monday when he compared U.S. troops to Saddam Hussein’s forces.

In talking about the prisoner abuses, Mr. Kennedy said, “Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam’s torture chambers reopened under new management — U.S. management.”

Mr. Gillespie said Mr. Kennedy is a chief surrogate for Mr. Kerry, and as such, his remarks “shed some light on the Kerry inner circle.”

“What’s worse than the blatant political exploitation is Senator Kennedy’s using the aberrant acts of a few cruel guards to suggest the U.S. armed services are engaging in the same systematic torture, rape and murder as one of the most brutal regimes in the history of the world,” Mr. Gillespie said.

David Smith, a spokesman for Mr. Kennedy, said Mr. Gillespie “should read the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which spelled out systemic abuse in numerous locations.”

“Senator Kennedy is simply trying to get to the truth. It’s clear from Gillespie’s tirade he can’t handle the truth,” Mr. Smith said.

“The senator strongly supports our armed services and knows 99.99 percent are serving with honor and distinction. The senator has said that this is a colossal leadership failure and does not reflect on the armed services as a whole,” the spokesman said.

cStephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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