Friday, May 7, 2004

From combined dispatches

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday the scandal over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops had been “very destructive” to U.S. foreign policy aims, particularly in the Middle East.

“There is no question that these pictures that we have seen … of misbehavior on the part of American troops makes our work much more difficult,” Mr. Powell said, referring to graphic photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in a prison west of Baghdad.

“We are all distressed by these scenes. … They are deplorable, they are unacceptable, they need to be dealt with,” he said in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

At the same time, Mr. Powell was confident that the scandal would not affect the transfer of power in Iraq on June 30.

“Justice will be served, there is no question about that. But let’s not lose sight of what we’re really about, and that is restoring democracy in Iraq,” he said.

Mr. Powell also defended his frequent sparring partner, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying he “has done a great job.”

Meanwhile, President Bush, in an interview with an Egyptian newspaper, repeatedly apologized for U.S. soldiers’ conduct and acknowledged “times are tough” for the United States and the Middle East.

The editors of Al-Ahram newspaper didn’t ask about the future of Mr. Rumsfeld, whom Mr. Bush mentioned only once in the interview, speaking of “our secretary of Defense, in whom I’ve got confidence and believe in.”

“I think that things in the Middle East for the United States are difficult right now,” Mr. Bush told the newspaper. “I think they’re difficult because people don’t really understand our intentions.”

In Baghdad, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition authority said U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer first heard of accusations in January that troops were mistreating Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib prison in the Iraqi capital. The Red Cross claimed it had been warning of prisoner abuse throughout Iraq since the very beginning of the U.S.-led invasion.

Mr. Bremer’s spokesman, Dan Senor, said he did not know when Mr. Bremer first saw the photos of abusive acts. It was the pictures, not the initial announcement of the investigation, that ignited international outrage.

In mid-January, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, announced an investigation into charges of mistreatment of prisoners at a coalition detention facility in Iraq — prompted by complaints of a U.S. guard at Abu Ghraib who told his superiors he could not tolerate abuses he had witnessed.

“Ambassador Bremer was made aware of the charges relating to the humiliations in January 2004,” when the investigation was announced, Mr. Senor told reporters.

The Red Cross, meanwhile, said yesterday it had warned U.S. officials of abuse of prisoners in Iraq more than a year ago, shortly after the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion.

It continued giving oral and written reports through November, including detailed charges of mistreatment at Abu Ghraib.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said the abuse represented more than isolated acts, and the problems were not limited to the Abu Ghraib prison.

“We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system,” he told reporters in Geneva.

He confirmed that a leaked ICRC report to U.S. authorities, published by the Wall Street Journal yesterday, was genuine.

The newspaper said that the 24-page report described prisoners kept naked in total darkness in cells at Abu Ghraib and male prisoners forced to parade around in women’s underwear. Coalition forces also fired on unarmed prisoners from watchtowers, killing some of them, according to the report.

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