WASHINGTON - Pelted with calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation, President Bush insisted yesterday that his secretary of defense would stay in the cabinet but yielded to critics by saying he is sorry for the "stain on our country's honor" caused by abuses of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.
In the fourth straight day of tumult in Washington over photographs showing U.S. soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqis held without charges in Saddam Hussein's former torture chamber, Mr. Bush appeared with Jordan's King Abdullah II at the White House. Mr. Bush twice used the word "sorry."
"I told him [the king] I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families," Mr. Bush told reporters. "I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."
Mr. Bush made clear that he understands the damage to the nation's reputation, although he emphasized he believes only a few soldiers were involved in the abuse.
"It's a stain on our country's honor and our country's reputation. I fully understand that. And that's why it's important that justice be done," he said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush gave two interviews to Arab TV networks promising that justice would be meted out to those who abused Iraqi prisoners, but he did not directly apologize. The resulting criticism caused consternation at the White
House and prompted Mr. Bush yesterday to make a point of saying that he told King Abdullah he was apologizing.
"Americans like me didn't appreciate what we saw, and it makes us sick to our stomachs," Mr. Bush told the king. "I also made it clear to his majesty that the troops we have in Iraq who were there for security and peace and freedom are the finest of the fine."
King Abdullah said everyone in the Arab world was "horrified" by the abuses but that he accepted Mr. Bush's word that investigations would be thorough and public and that those responsible would be punished.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers made it clear they differentiate between the behavior of most of the 130,000 troops in Iraq and what they hope will prove to be only a handful of soldiers who disgraced themselves.
But the anger of legislators toward Mr. Rumsfeld was unmistakable and widespread. Democrats and Republicans alike said they were angered that Mr. Rumsfeld never informed Congress of the scandal, although he knew about it in January.
Yet Mr. Bush was unequivocal in his support of Mr. Rumsfeld.
Asked about demands that Mr. Rumsfeld resign, Mr. Bush was adamant that he did not want that to happen. "Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense. Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well," he said. "Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars, and he is an important part of my cabinet, and he'll stay in my cabinet."
Nonetheless, he said he had told Mr. Rumsfeld that he was displeased with how the scandal has unfolded and of the way he personally found out about it - on television - even though he is commander in chief.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that the organization regularly complained to U.S. officials in Iraq and in Washington over the last several months about prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.
Spokesman Roland Huguenin said the reports were based on Red Cross interviews with prisoners and "were very extensive and detailed."
Other human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First, said this week that they had complained to the administration about reports of prisoner abuse and humiliation. Officials with the groups said they took appeals to L. Paul Bremer, head of the provision authority in Iraq, and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, but their appeals often seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Mr. Rumsfeld is likely to get a harsh dressing down today on Capitol Hill when he goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee for two hours to answer questions about the abuses. He will be joined by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Despite the widespread rumbling of discontent on Capitol Hill, only Democrats demanded that Mr. Rumsfeld resign. Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), Mr. Bush's likely rival in the presidential election, said it's time for Mr. Rumsfeld to go. He questioned Mr. Rumsfeld's judgment in how the situation was handled.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), the Democratic leader of the House, called for Mr. Rumsfeld's resignation yesterday afternoon.
She said he had "unnecessarily jeopardized the safety of America's troops" and "undermined our ability to wage the war on terrorism." She accused him of being "dismissive of international law, of world opinion, and of the Congress" and of "ignoring the Geneva Conventions, our allies, and common sense."
Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.) said if Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't resign he should be impeached.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) said if Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't resign, The President should fire him.
Following the lead of the White House, no Republicans called for Mr. Rumsfeld's dismissal or resignation, but many Republicans said they were appalled that he hadn't read the Army report on the abuse, finished in February, and hadn't informed Mr. Bush.
Mr. Rumsfeld, in a breakfast at the Pentagon with four lawmakers, reportedly told them there is a valid rationale for what happened and that he will lay it all out today.
But anything he says is not likely to quell outrage among Arabs anytime soon. Lisa Hajjar, a professor of law and society at the University of California-Santa Barbara and chairman of the editorial committee of Middle East Report, said the President was late in apologizing and did not accurately describe the abuse.
"It was torture; we are now finding that it has been systemic and rampant," according to an investigative report by U.S. Army Gen. Antonio Taguba. "Torture has a legal definition and consequences, and Bush is attempting to shield his administration from those consequences," she said.
This report includes information from The New York Times.
Contact Ann McFeatters at:
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.