Wednesday, May 5, 2004

President Bush will give interviews to two Arab TV networks today to denounce the abuse of Iraqi detainees, a furor that worsened yesterday as the Pentagon revealed it was investigating the deaths of 25 prisoners in U.S. custody, including two slain by Americans.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last night on Air Force One that Mr. Bush will conduct 10-minute interviews, one with the U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra television and the other with the network Al Arabiya.

“This is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the people in Arab nations and let them know that the images that we all have seen are shameless and unacceptable,” Mr. McClellan said.

Meanwhile yesterday, an Army official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that a soldier had been court-martialed for using excessive force in the fatal shooting of an Iraqi prisoner in September. The soldier was demoted to private and dismissed from the Army but served no jail time, the official said.

The Army also disclosed that it had referred to the Justice Department a homicide case involving a CIA contract interrogator accused in the death of an Iraqi prisoner in November.

In addition to those two cases, 23 other deaths are under investigation or have been investigated by the U.S. military.

Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, the Army’s provost marshal, told reporters there were 10 investigations under way of prisoner deaths — mostly in Iraq — and 10 pending cases involving possible assault of prisoners, including one sexual assault. Also, one prisoner’s death was ruled to have been a justified homicide.

Investigations into 12 other detainee deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2002 had concluded that the causes were natural or undetermined, Gen. Ryder said.

The investigations and the release of pictures of U.S. soldiers humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners yesterday spurred bipartisan calls for open congressional hearings on the incidents.

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said yesterday that he will hold a closed hearing today about the abuse of prisoners.

“There have been a number of allegations that intelligence personnel instructed or encouraged the activities that have come to light over the last few days. The committee will question the witnesses to determine whether intelligence professionals had anything to do with what I think everyone believes is absolutely unacceptable conduct by Americans,” Mr. Roberts said.

John Ullyot, spokesman for Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and Armed Services Committee chairman, said his boss has invited Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to testify publicly before the Senate Armed Services Committee “as soon as possible.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said that “it’s too early for me to be calling for open hearings,” but that “I think within a couple of days we’ll be able to have an answer to that.”

Emerging yesterday from a closed-door hearing of the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Warner said he had learned in the meeting that similar sexual humiliation and abuses, though “small in number,” also have occurred in Afghanistan.

“This is as serious a problem of breakdown in discipline as I’ve ever observed,” he said.

Meanwhile yesterday, several Bush administration figures moved to stem the damage to the U.S. image around the world, especially in the Middle East.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice appeared on Al Arabiya television to condemn the abuse and say that “we are deeply sorry for what has happened to these people.”

“I want to assure the people in the Arab world, Iraq, around the world, and the American people that the president is determined to get to the bottom of it, to know who is responsible and to make sure that whoever is responsible is punished for it and held accountable,” Miss Rice said.

Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday that the abuse — which ranged from forcing Iraqi prisoners to strip naked and form a human pyramid to phony threats of electrocution — is “totally unacceptable and un-American.”

The Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those who may have violated the code of military conduct and betrayed the trust placed in them by the American people.”

“The images that we’ve seen that include U.S. forces are deeply disturbing, both because of the fundamental unacceptability of what they depicted and because the actions by U.S. military personnel in those photos do not in any way represent the values of our country or the armed forces,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that it was a “small number of troops who acted in an illegal, improper manner.”

“Compare that to the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have served in Iraq and who served around the world, and not just in this current period but in the past,” Mr. Powell said. “These wonderful young men and women are distressed that some of their fellow soldiers acted in this manner.”

In campaign swings through Ohio yesterday, Mr. Bush did not mention the Iraqi prisoners, but made clear that he believes he deserves a second term because of his record as commander in chief.

“We’re liberators,” Mr. Bush said in Dayton. “We care deeply about human freedom and the human condition. … When America speaks, it’s got to mean what it says. Everybody is watching us.”

On Capitol Hill yesterday, senators emerged from a closed-door meeting of the Armed Services Committee stunned by the abuse of the prisoners.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said that despite protestations from the Bush administration, “this does not appear to be an isolated incident.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War, said he is “extremely hopeful” that what happened is not indicative of “a widespread pattern of abuse and that the conduct of the overwhelming majority of Americans is honorable and decent.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, was irked that Congress only learned of the incidents through the press.

“Not only did we not know about it, what is very, very troubling to me is that we met with Secretary Rumsfeld and all of the key Pentagon leadership on the very day this broke last week,” Mr. Daschle said. “They had an opportunity, in over an hour’s time, to tell us, to come clean. I think that is inexcusable, it’s an outrage, it’s wrong, and some sort of explanation is warranted.”

Miss Rice expressed confidence that the abuse won’t result in long-term damage to the reputation of the United States in the Arab world.

“We believe that when people hear our story, that they will understand, at least then, for themselves,” she told Al Arabiya.

While telling reporters of the Bush interviews last night, Mr. McClellan declined to say whether the United States would accept an international investigation into the abuses, saying the Pentagon already is studying the matter.

Charles Black, a Republican political consultant and unofficial adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign, said the fallout from these abuses might ultimately inflict political damage.

“It’s bad news, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “The main concern I’ve heard people talk about is that it’s just a terrible thing about the way we’ll be viewed in that part of the world when we’re trying to do the right things.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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