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TheEveningStar
07-05-04, 20:14
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday extended "my deepest apology" to Iraqis brutally abused in U.S. military prisons and said he favors compensating them for their suffering.

"These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility," Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

At the same time, he brushed aside Democratic demands for his resignation. Asked whether he could remain effective in his post, he said if he believed he could not, "I'd resign in a minute."

"I would not resign simply because people try to make a political issue out of it," he added.

Rumsfeld said the military began investigating the abuse shortly after it was first reported by one GI in January, has already disciplined some captors who were involved. He assured senators that the investigations will not be limited to the private, sergeants and other low-ranking service personnel at the prison.

The defense secretary took the witness chair after a week of controversy spawned by shocking photographs of U.S. captors abusing their prisoners, often gloating as they forced them to assume sexually humiliating poses.

"Be on notice," he warned the committee neared the end of an appearance that lasted nearly three hours.

"There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist," he said. "If these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse."

Thus far, no videos of abusive treatment have reached the public. The still photographs, though, have spawned a worldwide wave of revulsion that has damaged America's image overseas and sparked a political storm at home.

"Obviously, our reputation has been damaged severely by the terrible and horrible acts, inhumane acts that were conducted on Iraqi prisoners," President Bush said in an interview with Al-Ahram, an Egyptian newspaper.

Six months before the presidential election, Rumsfeld's acceptance of responsibility drew a tart response from Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic challenger to Bush. "The chain of command goes all the way to the Oval Office," said the Massachusetts senator. "Harry Truman did not say `the buck stops at the Pentagon.'"

But Bush gave Rumsfeld a second vote of confidence in as many days. And the secretary drew a key declaration of support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

"I commend you for taking responsibility of what happened," said Frist, who walked into the committee room to make his statement near the end of the testimony.

Rumsfeld also announced creation of a panel of retired officials to examine "the pace, the breadth, the thoroughness of the existing investigations and to determine whether additional investigations or studies need to be initiated." He said the group will have 45 days to complete its work.

Rumsfeld seemed to suggest at one point that he had considered resignation. Asked later if his resignation might show the world how seriously the United States viewed the abuse, he replied, "It's possible."

Rumsfeld's apology wasn't the first by administration officials. Bush did so on Thursday, at the same time he vowed that the Cabinet officer would remain in his post.

But the defense secretary's mention of compensation for those victimized in what he called "a catastrophe" was a first.

"I'm seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to those detainees who suffered such grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty at the hands of a few members of the United States armed forces," he said.

"It's the right thing to do," he added.

Questioned by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Rumsfeld said that not only the captors who abused prisoners would be held accountable for their actions, but also commanders further up the military chain of command.

Military police, intelligence officers and slightly more than three dozen contractors were all present at the Abu Ghraib facility, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., peppered Rumsfeld with questions about who had overall command of the facility.

McCain also asked what instructions had been given to the MPs, some of whom appear in the photographs. The question goes to the heart of the findings in an internal Army report that the prison guards were told to "soften up" prisoners so they would be more cooperative during interrogations.

Rumsfeld had scarcely uttered his opening apology when protesters interrupted him.

"Fire Rumsfeld," some yelled before they were hustled from the room.

Rumsfeld sat calmly in his seat while the room was quieted.

Moments earlier, he added his personal apology to Bush's.

"I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody," he said.

"To those Iraqis who were mistreated by the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology."

Fresh disclosures surfaced as Rumsfeld went before the committee, the first of two such appearances during the day.

In Geneva, the International Red Cross said it had warned U.S. officials of abuse of prisoners in Iraq more than a year ago.

"We were dealing here with a broad pattern, not individual acts. There was a pattern and a system," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Answering a question many lawmakers have posed, Kraehenbuehl said the abuse went beyond detainees held at the Abu Ghraib prison in the Baghdad area.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified, though, that an investigation of four prisons under the command of the unit in charge of Abu Ghraib had not turned up other problems.

Levin and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee chairman, both expressed displeasure that they had not been informed earlier.

Levin noted with "deep dismay" that Rumsfeld and Myers had briefed the panel about Iraq in a classified session last week but did not mention the scandal the government knew was about to break in the news media.

Consultation with Congress "is not supposed to be an option but a longstanding and fundamental responsibility" of administration officials, Levin lectured Rumsfeld.

The committee session was televised live in the United States and in the Arab world, as well. Both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, the most popular television news stations in the Middle East showed the proceedings with simultaneous Arabic translation.

U.S. officials have accused both stations of bias in their coverage of the war in Iraq.

But at the same time, the broadcasts offered Rumsfeld and lawmakers an opportunity to say repeatedly that the abuses by captors in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad were an aberration. "It contradicts all the values we Americans learn," said Warner.
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