Bush speaks on prisoner abuse

By RICHARD TOMKINS, UPI White House Correspondent   |   May 5, 2004 at 3:18 PM

WASHINGTON, May 5 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush personally told Arabs Wednesday the alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel doesn't represent the values of the country and that those responsible would be held accountable.

The scandal, which became public with the broadcast and publication of photographs showing the sexual degradation of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, creates a terrible impression of America and U.S. troops with the Arab public, he admitted, and will be used as an "excuse" to fuel anti-U.S. sentiment.

"This is a serious matter. It's a matter that reflects badly on my country," Bush said in a White House interview with al-Arabiya Television. "Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled.

"We share the same deep concerns. And we will find the truth. We will fully investigate. The world will see the investigation and justice will be served."

The two interviews, each lasting about 10 minutes, were unprecedented and came amid a growing national and international furor over the alleged mistreatment, which sparked a military investigation last January and which has resulted so far in six U.S. service personnel facing criminal charges or administrative punishments. Others could be disciplined for the alleged abuse. An Army Reserve general, in charge of the prison, has been suspended from duty pending further investigation.

The January investigation came after a soldier, who said he witnessed abuse, reported it to his superiors. The Department of Defense announced the probe but apparently little else was heard about it until the publication and broadcast of the photographs months later, despite the completion of the investigation report in March.

The White House said Monday Bush had personally called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after the scandal came to light to discuss the issue and press that those responsible be punished.

Bush, it said, was disgusted by the photographs, including one that showed naked men piled on each other with guards grinning nearby.

Bush said there would be investigations into the entire detention system in Iraq to uncover problems and any other instances of possible abuse and that the process would be transparent to bring confidence "to the people of the world that this situation will be rectified and justice will be done."

"It's also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made," Bush told al-Hurra Television. "But in a democracy, whose mistakes will be investigated and people will be brought to justice. That stands in stark contrast to life under Saddam Hussein. His trained torturers were never brought to justice under his regime."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday that Bush had been informed of allegations of abuse and the beginning of an investigation earlier this year, but he was not able to provide a timeline.

When asked if Bush believed Rumsfeld should resign over the scandal, he uttered a very clear and unequivocal "no."

"I've got confidence in the secretary of Defense, and I've got confidence in the commanders n the ground in Iraq," Bush said. "But people will be held to account."

Bush disclosed that there was more than one investigation under way, but offered no further details. Army officials, however, have said probes were being conducted on the death of two Iraqi prisoners last year as well as 20 other detainee deaths and assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those inquiries are part of a larger investigation to see if mistreatment may have been involved.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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