WASHINGTON - President Bush, alarmed by calls for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to leave office, went to the Pentagon yesterday to stand at Mr. Rumsfeld's side and proclaim that the embattled defense chief is "doing a superb job."
Although he told Mr. Rumsfeld last week that he was dismayed and upset by the Iraqi prison scandal and then apologized himself for the mistreatment of prisoners, Mr. Bush clearly wanted to try to stem the avalanche of demands that Mr. Rumsfeld resign or be dismissed.
Flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush as commander in chief received a previously scheduled briefing about Iraq from generals on the ground there, led by Gen. John Abizaid, who is in charge in the Middle East.
The President was shown about a dozen graphic photos of abuse of naked Iraqis perpetrated by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison and not yet seen by the public. Also present were CIA director George Tenet, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the President's reaction after seeing the photos was "deep disgust and disbelief" that anyone wearing a U.S. uniform could perform such "appalling" acts.
Mr. Bush strode with all of the officials in tow into a room near Mr. Rumsfeld's private office to face a phalanx of reporters and TV cameras.
He told the world, "Mr. Secretary, thank you for your hospitality, and thank you for your leadership. You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror. You're doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."
But the controversy over Mr. Rumsfeld, who offered his "deepest apologies" for the abuses last week, and the debate over who knew what and when will not end soon. There are ongoing internal military investigations, and today the Senate Armed Services Committee holds another hearing on whether the abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was an aberration or a deliberate and illegal policy to try to get prisoners to reveal information about insurgents attacking U.S. soldiers.
The leadoff witness at the
hearing today will be Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who in February finished a 53-page report that documented criminal activity at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison 20 miles from Baghdad, the same prison where Saddam Hussein used to torture and execute political prisoners.
The Senate last night voted 92-0 to pass a resolution condemning the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, "urging a full and complete investigation to ensure justice is served and expressing support for all Americans serving nobly in Iraq." The resolution was proposed by Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Mr. Bush, facing new polls showing his job approval rating at the lowest level of his presidency at 46 percent, was told there are several hundred more photographs and at least one video depicting the abuse of prisoners.
Mr. Rumsfeld said last week he hoped they would not become public, but there is growing demand inside the Pentagon that they be released to avoid prolonging the scandal.
In his remarks at the Pentagon, Mr. Bush conceded that the scandal continues to damage the nation's reputation worldwide.
"Those responsible for these abuses have caused harm that goes well beyond the walls of a prison. It has given some an excuse to question our cause and to cast doubt on our motives," he said.
Mr. Bush again vowed to get to the bottom of how the abuses in Abu Ghraib, which apparently took place in the last three months of 2003, were permitted. The military trial of one of seven soldiers accused of the abuses at the prison starts May 19 in the Baghdad Convention Center, but U.S. officials yesterday said TV cameras would not be permitted inside to avoid having a "show trial."
Mr. Bush repeated his commitment to staying the course in Iraq. "Our priorities, however, remain the same: The protection of our country, the security of our troops and the spread of freedom throughout the world. Like other generations of Americans, we have accepted a difficult and historic task."
Despite reports that U.S. soldiers are outmanned and have supply and equipment problems, Mr. Bush said they are getting what they need. "In all these ongoing operations, our troops continue to face serious danger, and this government is giving them every means of protecting themselves and every means necessary to gain victory," he said.
That's why in addition to the $87 billion he recently asked and received from Congress for the war, he now is asking for $25 billion more to last until the end of the year, he said.
Mr. Bush said there is no thought of not handing over sovereignty to an interim government in Iraq on June 30. Although 135,000 U.S. troops will remain to provide security, he said, as of July 1, Iraqis will have to provide "water and electricity and health care and education."
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President Bush, alarmed by calls for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to leave office, went to the Pentagon yesterday to stand at Mr. Rumsfeld's side and proclaim that the embattled defense chief is "doing a superb job."