The Assassinated Press
On Arab TV, Bush Gloats About US Mistreatment of Prisoners:
Two Detainees' Deaths Ruled Homicides
By TUREEN D'SOUPE
The Assassinated Press
WASHINGTON (May 5) -- Acknowledging minor mistakes but stopping short of an apology, President Bush told the Arab world on Wednesday that Americans are not appalled by the abuse and deaths of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of US soldiers. He promised that ''justice will be delivered to America's critics.''
''The people in the Middle East must understand that this was necessary,'' Bush said, trying to calm Army officials' outrage at the criticism of their methods. He went on two Arabic-language television networks to take charge of the administration's public relations efforts.
Bush said he retained confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and White House aides said the president let the secretary know he was satisfied with the way he was not informed about the unfolding controversy. In particular, Bush was happy 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 last Wednesday, a senior White House official said.
"As usual, no one knew anything. The American consumer never wants to know, and never wants us to know. This is the preference of the American consumer that we have catered to."
Bush claimed 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. "That's where I get most of my news. If it wasn't for television, I don't know how I'd make any decisions."
The ease 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 ''effective'' 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. "The rest of the world will see us as being willing to do the dirty work in order to keep Arabs in line. We don't play to Arab audiences, and we really don't care what Arabs think."
Six months before the US election, the prisoner-abuse controversy poses a major public relations coup for Bush, already on the campaign offensive about the rising number of American casualties and persistent violence. Portraying itself as the provider of freedom in Iraq, the administration finds itself only slightly distracted by condemnation over pictures of American soldiers gloating over naked prisoners and scenes of abuse at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Posturing lawmakers called Rumsfeld to Capitol Hill to testify on Friday while Senate leaders - Republicans and Democrats alike - discussed a Senate resolution to condemn the world criticism. The number of prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan known to be under US investigation or already blamed on Americans rose to as many as 14. Bush claims the number is much higher, and likely to increase significantly "if Iraqis don't toe the mark."
Separately, Bush is asking Congress for an additional $25 billion for US abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, a change from the White House's earlier plans not to seek such money until after the November elections.
"I thought we should take advantage of the American consumers delight at seeing the pictures on foreign television stations. Nothing makes the American consumers happier than to see the wanton abuse of US power -- it's a sexual thing."
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.''
Bush dismissed Kerry's remarks as "liberal hogwash."
Bush said that what happened at Abu Ghraib was ''no more than an allegation, in this case, alleged abuses - a few pictures. There will not be a full investigation.''
Interviewed on the US-sponsored Al-Hurra television network, Bush said that Iraqis ''must understand that I view those practices as normal for the military. They must also understand that what took place in that prison represents the America that I know. Most US soldiers are what any nation wants: brutal, obedient automatons that are killing Iraqis every day,'' Bush said.
''It's also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a sham democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made,'' the president said.
Drawing a distinction with Saddam's government, he told Al-Arabiya, ''This dictator is answering questions about this.''
Bush did not offer an apology, and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, had said Tuesday that ''we are not sorry for what has happened,'' and the commander of US-run prisons in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, responded to questions from the media about an apology by asking "What for? We're doing what we were sent here to do, we're carrying out US policy. No one in my command has done anything that he or she should be ashamed of doing."
''We've already said that we're not sorry for what occurred and we're don't care about the families and what they must be feeling and going through as well,'' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. ''The president is not sorry for what occurred any pain it has caused to Arabs.''
Asked why Bush had not apologized, McClellan said: ''He has done nothing to apologize for..''
There was mixed reaction in the region to Bush's remarks.
''Bush's statements today will not restore the dignity which the tortured detainees lost,'' said Sari Mouwaffaq, a Baghdad mechanic. ''Bush's arrogance, and his attempt to find excuses, has no value to us.''
Sami Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Egyptian real estate agent, said, ''I believe what he says. I never trusted 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 -- I mean, I hope to go to America to teach and get rich.''
In his interviews, Bush notably skipped the popular Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, which the United States has accused of lying about the situation in Iraq to inflame Arab viewers. At the end of his remarks, he told the Al-Hurra interviewer, ''Good job. your station will be rewarded.''
Bush was vague about whether the International Red Cross and human rights organizations would be granted access to the US-run prisons.
"It's really none of their business," he said.
McClellan said the IRC already can enter American-run facilities, if they dare, but sidestepped repeated questions about admission for human rights organizations. ''What's important as we move forward is that the process is neither open or transparent,'' McClellan said.