Sunday, May 9, 2004

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. (AP) — Basem el-Kurd is a suburban, white-collar Republican who voted for George W. Bush in the last presidential election.

But Mr. el-Kurd also is a Muslim and the photos of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners have sparked a bitter mix of outrage, shock and shame within him.

“I used to be proud when I traveled around the world and said ‘I am an American,’” said Mr. el-Kurd, 48, after attending Friday prayers at his local mosque. “I don’t have that pride any more.”

His anger was shared by many American Muslims, who said they have had difficulty defending their adopted country to relatives back home who saw photos of Iraqi prisoners stripped naked, abused and humiliated by U.S. soldiers.

Yesterday, President Bush in his weekly radio address called the abuse “a stain on our country’s honor and reputation,” but said it would not deter the U.S. mission to bring democracy to Iraq.

The president said the abuse and sexual humiliation of prisoners in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison “was the wrongdoing of a few” and should not reflect on the thousands of U.S. military personnel “who are serving and sacrificing in Iraq.”

Mr. Bush, who earlier in the week apologized for the abuse, indicated that punishment arising from the prison incident will go beyond the seven members of the Army Reserve’s 372nd Military Police Company already charged by the military.

In a separate radio broadcast, however, Democrats suggested that was not enough.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate, suggested that the prison abuses were another example of Mr. Bush’s poor leadership.

The president “made mistake after mistake as commander in chief, taking us into a war we didn’t have to wage, alone and under false pretenses, and is now managing it poorly,” Mr. Clark said in the Democratic response to Mr. Bush.

At Mr. el-Kurd’s mosque, an angry prayer leader urged worshippers to write letters to Congress seeking Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s resignation —a suggestion that drew strong support from many in attendance.

“We are all appalled and dismayed,” said Mohannad Malas, a Laguna Beach businessman and native of Lebanon.

The irony that the prison was a notorious torture center under ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did not go unnoticed by many.

“As an American, I am ashamed,” said Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer in Clifton, N.J. “We went over there to eradicate this kind of stuff. Now we’re doing it ourselves.”

As he led Friday’s prayer service in Mission Viejo, Hussam Ayloush said the war on terror had become a “war on Muslims” and that the United States had become the “new Saddam.”

“So let’s end this hypocrisy, this hypocrisy that we are better than the other dictator,” Mr. Ayloush told several hundred worshippers.

Several people said afterward that the abuses had undermined America’s moral standing in the world and perhaps made it a greater target of terrorist attacks.

“It will make recruiting terrorists a lot easier for whoever wants to recruit them,” said Syrian native Mutaz Ascha, a construction contractor.

In the San Diego suburb of Vista, Nadia Keilani, a 32-year-old Iraqi-born lawyer, said the abuses also have damaged U.S. efforts to stabilize the political situation in her native country.

“The rest of the world has grown more and more to dislike the American efforts in Iraq,” she said. “This has really taken away our moral high ground.”

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