Washington Acknowledging mistakes but stopping short of an apology, President Bush told the Arab world on Wednesday that Americans were appalled by the abuse and deaths of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers. He promised that "justice will be delivered."
"The people in the Middle East must understand that this was horrible," Bush said, trying to calm international outrage. He went on two Arabic-language television networks to take charge of the administration's damage-control efforts.
Bush said he retained confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but White House aides said the president let the secretary know he was not satisfied with the way he was informed about the unfolding controversy. In particular, Bush was unhappy he was not told about incriminating pictures before they were shown on television or about a 2-month-old Pentagon report before it turned up in the news.
Rumsfeld did not know about the images until CBS aired them April 28, a senior White House official said.
Bush also said he learned of the photographs of the alleged abuse when the rest of the world did. "First time I saw or heard about pictures was on TV," Bush told the Al-Hurra television network.
The difficulty of Bush's task became clear in the first question of a television interviewer who said the evidence of torture made many Arabs believe that the United States was no better than Saddam Hussein's government, notorious for torture and murder. The president murmured under his breath at the comparison.
Bush said the abuses were "terrible" for America's image abroad. "I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike," he told Al-Arabiya television, a satellite channel based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that is popular around the Arab world.
Six months before the U.S. election, the prisoner-abuse controversy poses a major problem for Bush, already on the defensive about rising American casualties and persistent violence.
Report of new photos
The Washington Post, in an article on its Web site Wednesday night, said it had obtained a new batch of more than 1,000 digital photos from Iraq. The newspaper said the photos ranged from snapshots depicting everyday military life to graphic images of what appeared to be naked prisoners sprawled on top of one another with soldiers standing nearby.
Angry lawmakers called Rumsfeld to Capitol Hill to testify on Friday while Senate leaders -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- discussed a Senate resolution to condemn the abuses. The number of prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan known to be under U.S. investigation or already blamed on Americans rose to as many as 14.
Sen. John Kerry, Bush's Democratic rival, said the president's remarks were not enough. "The president of the United States needs to offer the world an explanation and needs to take appropriate responsibility," he said. "And if that includes apologizing for the behavior of those soldiers and what happened, they ought to do that."
Interviewed on the U.S.-sponsored Al-Hurra television network, Bush said that Iraqis "must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know." Most U.S. soldiers are "good, honorable citizens that are helping the Iraqis every day," Bush said.
While Bush did not offer an apology, Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, had said Tuesday that "we are deeply sorry for what has happened," and the commander of U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, apologized Wednesday for the "illegal or unauthorized acts" of U.S. soldiers.
"We've already said that we're sorry for what occurred and we're deeply sorry to the families and what they must be feeling and going through as well," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The president is sorry for what occurred and the pain it has caused."
Asked why Bush himself had not apologized, McClellan said: "I'm saying it now for him."
There was mixed reaction in the region to Bush's remarks.
Sami Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Egyptian real estate agent, said, "I won't believe what he says. I don't trust their intentions anyway."
But Raad Youssef, a 49-year-old teacher in Baghdad, said that during Saddam's rule, "there were many genocides that were committed and nobody dared to reveal them at that time, and now officials of the former regime did not try to apologize. Bush's attempt to repair the damage is a good thing in my opinion."