WASHINGTON - With a rare apology to abuse victims in Iraq, top Bush administration officials moved on several fronts yesterday to halt the erosion of American credibility worldwide from mistreatment of prisoners and limit further political damage to the president.
Exposure of the abuses has added new difficulties to American plans for a transfer of political power from occupation authorities to Iraqis on June 30, undercut U.S. claims to champion human rights and further inflamed public opinion in a region disillusioned by what Arabs perceive as President Bush's bias toward Israel.
In a series of news conferences, interviews on Arab satellite channels and other public appearances yesterday, top White House, State Department and Pentagon officials struck an uncharacteristic note of humility in trying to quell the worldwide furor caused by the broadcast and publication of evidence that Iraqi prisoners were abused and humiliated.
"We are deeply sorry for what has happened to these people and what the families must be feeling. It's just not right. And we will get to the bottom of what happened," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, told the Dubai-based Arab channel Al-Arabiya.
Rice said Bush will "speak directly to the Arab world" and was "personally sickened" by pictures showing some of the abuses.
The president will give an interview to al Ahram, the government-owned Egyptian daily, tomorrow, and is planning two 10-minute interviews with Arab television, but is unlikely to deliver a speech to the region, a senior Bush administration official said.
Yesterday, top officials found themselves having to defend not only the behavior of the U.S. military and their own response to the prisoner abuses, but the American character, after disclosure of pictures showing naked Iraqi men in degrading postures.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan stressed that Bush learned of the abuse allegations after the Pentagon began its own probe but did not see the pictures until they were made public last week and didn't know of a classified Pentagon investigative report until news organizations reported it.
The worldwide uproar over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners forced a hasty readjustment of the Bush administration's international public relations strategy, which is calibrated almost daily from the White House to make sure officials deliver the same message.
The new Bush administration tone of contrition marked a sharp change from what was widely perceived in other countries as American arrogance in launching an invasion of Iraq without the backing of the United Nations, controlling all aspects of the postwar reconstruction effort and launching a campaign to promote democracy throughout the Arab world.
The president has repeatedly pointed to the atrocities committed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in justifying the need to topple his regime. Other administration officials have also sought to highlight Hussein's brutal reign in Iraq, particularly since the failure to locate any stockpiles of banned weapons has called into question the main reason for invading Iraq.
On the campaign trail this week, Bush continued to sound the same theme about Iraq, saying that Hussein's "torture rooms" were a thing of the past.
But in comments aimed at overseas audiences, administration officials acknowledged that the United States has to strive anew to live up to its claims of having liberated Iraqis from tyranny and to uphold its own standards on human rights.
"I couldn't be angrier," Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said of the abuses. "I couldn't be sadder about them. And, frankly, I couldn't be sorrier that some Iraqi prisoners had to suffer from this humiliation.
"First of all, we made mistakes in this case, clearly," Armitage said in an interview on Al Hurra Television, the new U.S.-funded station that broadcasts to the Middle East.
He said the United States now has to show that it is not trying to hide abuses and that "we're seen as being people who take the view that no one's above the law."
Annually, the United States takes other governments to task in the State Department's human rights reports for their failure to live up to global rights standards. The reports have gained wide international credibility. But now, human rights groups have turned an unsparing spotlight on the U.S. role in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the White House has reached out to Al-Arabiya and Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, the two Arab satellite channels that officials frequently criticize for biased coverage of the American occupation of Iraq. Besides granting interviews to those channels yesterday, Rice also appeared on a Lebanese television station.
Armitage said it would take "a long time" for the United States to recover from the damage to its reputation.
The damage has been aggravated by pictures showing naked Iraqi men apparently forced into homosexual postures, a bitter humiliation in a Muslim culture that abhors public nudity and forbids homosexuality.
Even before the latest revelations, Iraqis had shown rising resentment toward the U.S.-led occupation, forcing the Bush administration to look to the United Nations to devise a government for when Iraqis regain sovereignty.
Elsewhere, anger toward the United States in the Arab world has been stirred up as much by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as by the occupation of Iraq. Bush drew heightened criticism two weeks ago when he supported Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's bid to hold on to large Jewish settlements in the West Bank and bar any right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees.
The U.S. concessions were intended to help Sharon in his campaign to win the support of his Likud Party for a withdrawal of Jewish settlers and most Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. But about 60 percent of Likud's members voted against the plan Sunday.
In a bid to quell anti-U.S. feeling, Powell joined in a meeting yesterday at the United Nations that was intended to bring the international community back into Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. He assured Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - the other members of the Quartet - that the United States does not intend to prejudge any agreement that Israelis and Palestinians reach in any future negotiations. But he did not retract Bush's concessions.
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