Bush fails to apologise as he tries to quell outrage

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington


06 May 2004

In a desperate bid to contain the damage caused by reports of Iraqi prisoner abuse, President George Bush acknowledged to an outraged Arab world yesterday that what had happened was "abhorrent" and "reflected badly on my country".

But though he promised a full investigation and to punish those responsible, he stopped short of a clear apology.

In hastily arranged and unprecedented separate interviews with two Arab-language television channels in the White House Maproom, Mr Bush insisted that the images of the soldiers mistreating prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison did not represent America. The US, he promised, would "clean up its act". But it was far from clear last night whether Mr Bush's words had even begun to mollify the fury in Iraq and the Arab world, which is fast concluding that there is little practical difference between Saddam Hussein's jailers and those of the US military.

Nor did they relieve the pressure on Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary and a prime architect of last year's invasion. In the first interview, with the US government funded al-Hurriyah network, the President explicitly backed Mr Rumsfeld. "Of course I've got confidence in the Secretary of Defence," he said.

But Mr Rumsfeld was squarely in the sights of Congress, where top Democrats and Republicans alike are furious they were not kept abreast of arguably the military's biggest scandal in decades. In a sudden change of schedule, the Senate Armed Services Committee "invited" Mr Rumsfeld to give public testimony today. Calling the abuse "appalling and totally unacceptable", John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the panel, noted ominously that Mr Rumsfeld and the other top civilian officials at the Pentagon had "ultimate responsibility for the actions of the men and women in uniform".

That view is shared across the political spectrum in the Senate, long resentful of highhanded treatment from Mr Rumsfeld. If the trail of responsibility led to the Defence Secretary's office, then he should resign, said Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But in a series of TV and radio interviews, Mr Rumsfeld too has stopped short of apologising, insisting that the abuse was an isolated incident, whose culprits were being punished. At one point he refused even to concede that the humiliations and abuse visited on the prisoners amounted to torture. "I'm not a lawyer," he said.

For all the anger, and a widespread feeling that a head should roll, the odds remained that the Defence Secretary would keep his job. It was unlikely in the extreme, Congressional staffers said, that Mr Bush would shake up his national security team less than six months before the election, at a moment when the entire military operation in Iraq was hanging in the balance.

In the interviews, one shown unedited in English with an Arab-language summary afterwards, and the other with a simultaneous Arabic voice-over, Mr Bush tried to project himself as firm and re-assuring.

"In a democracy everything is not perfect," he declared, "Mistakes are made." But in a democracy also, mistakes were dealt with: "There will be investigations, people will be brought to justice."

But he did not offer a personal apology, and told the al-Arabiya network that, whatever had happened, US forces would remain in Iraq until their mission was done. "We want to help Iraq. We made a commitment," he said. "The United States will keep that commitment, because we believe in freedom and we believe the people of Iraq want to be free."

Speaking on the same channel earlier yesterday, the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice did apologise. "We are deeply sorry for what has happened to these people, and what the families must be feeling. It's just not right," she said.

Meanwhile, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, has sent the clearest signal yet that, weary and frustrated, he does not intend to be around for a second term if the President is re-elected in November. But in classic Powell style, he did not deliver the message in person. Instead, confidants, notably his deputy Richard Armitage and his chief-of-staff Larry Wilkerson, have made his feelings plain in an lengthy article in the magazine GQ, clearly with the Secretary of State's blessing.

* More shocking pictures of Iraqi prisoners apparently being humiliated and abused by US soldiers were published today by The Washington Post. One image appears to show a soldier holding a leash tied around the neck of a naked man lying on the floor of an Iraqi prison.

It is just one of 1,000 digital pictures obtained which it claims were taken during last summer and winter. The newspaper says the pictures were passed around military police who served at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and some of them are similar in content to those shown in the US media which shocked the world last week.
6 May 2004 07:58