WASHINGTON - President Bush apologized yesterday for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. soldiers and said he had scolded Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for his handling of the scandal. But the president rejected calls to oust Rumsfeld.
"I told him I should have known about the pictures and the report," Bush said. He was referring to graphic photos that have documented mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners and an Army report that faulted U.S. soldiers for "sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuses."
Several congressional Democrats have called for Rumsfeld's resignation over the growing crisis, which has infuriated the Arab world and raised questions about the leadership of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Bush acknowledged that the scandal marked a "stain on our country's honor," and vowed that "the wrongdoers will be brought to justice." In a White House appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah II, he said he had told the king he was "sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families."
But he said of Rumsfeld: "He's an important part of my Cabinet, and he'll stay in my Cabinet."
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, was the highest-ranking Democrat to call for Rumsfeld's resignation. "The Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld oversees has become an island of unaccountability, ignoring the Geneva Conventions, our allies and common sense," she said, adding that Rumsfeld "must be held responsible for any cover-up" of the prisoner abuse charges.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said Rumsfeld should go, "for the good of our country, the safety of our troops and our image around the globe."
The defense secretary is under fire from members of both parties for failing to inform them earlier about the prison abuse investigation.
Today, Rumsfeld will join a group of military officials, including Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in testifying about the scandal at separate House and Senate hearings that are sure to be combative. Lawmakers say that besides seeking details about the prisoner mistreatment, they will explore the roles Rumsfeld and others might have played in creating conditions that led to the abuses.
The hearings, to be broadcast on several networks, will mark the second time within weeks that top Bush officials have had to respond at televised hearings to questions about their actions. Last month, several officials testified about the administration's response to terrorism warnings before Sept. 11, 2001.
"My principal objective is to get the maximum amount of facts available in the public domain," said Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Armed Services panel.
But Warner, like other congressional Republicans, said he was not calling for Rumsfeld's resignation. "I do not have any loss of confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld," he said.
Shock and anger at the prisoner mistreatment continued to ripple through Congress as fresh photos of prisoner humiliations at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad surfaced. Discussion of the scandal dominated House and Senate debate. One new photo showed a naked prisoner cowering at the end of a leash held by a U.S. soldier.
The House overwhelmingly passed a measure condemning the abuses and calling for "swift justice" for those responsible.
But the discussion in the House devolved into partisan sniping about the allegations and the entire Iraq war, with many Democrats faulting the administration and some Republicans accusing Democrats of politicizing the issue and undermining U.S. troops.
Fifty Democrats, including Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, opposed the resolution because it failed to order a congressional investigation of the prisoner abuse charges. (Except for Hoyer and two others, all the resolution's opponents had voted against authorizing war with Iraq.)
Cummings and several other Democrats echoed calls for Rumsfeld to resign.
"This administration views things from the point of [view that members of Congress will] make a lot of noise, and we can just hold on and hold out, and the storm will pass over," Cummings said. "This is going to be a storm that's very, very difficult to pass over."
Another Democrat, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, went so far as to file articles of impeachment against Rumsfeld, saying Congress should pursue them if he did not step down or was not fired by Bush.
"This rises to the point that it is a high crime and misdemeanor," Rangel said. But with Republicans in control of the House and Senate, there is virtually no chance that Congress would impeach Rumsfeld.
House Democrats pointed to the prison abuse allegations as evidence of broader problems with the administration's handling of operations in Iraq.
Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, argued that the U.S. mission in Iraq is undermanned and that many troops there are poorly trained and ill-equipped to perform their duties.
"We either have to mobilize or we have to get out," Murtha said. "The direction has got to be changed or it's unwinnable."
House Republican leaders charged that Democratic critics were undercutting U.S. troops while they are fighting overseas.
Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas called the comments "a calculated and craven political stunt" and said the Democratic Party had "declared its surrender in the war on terror."
"For two years, they have strutted down to the floor of the House and out of sheer, brazen politics undermined our troops, scoffed at our coalition and shown the terrorists of this world that there are some Americans who will cower under their threats," DeLay said.
By criticizing the administration's policy in Iraq, said Rep. Michael C. Burgess of Texas, Democrats "basically are giving aid and comfort to the enemy."
Earlier in the day, House proceedings ground to a halt as Burgess got caught in a dust-up with Democrats over comments he had made accusing Democrats of turning against U.S. troops in the middle of a war.
"This response is reminiscent of the response that a candidate named John Kerry, 30 years ago, had before the Senate committee, where he condemned all of our troops in Vietnam," Burgess said. He was referring to testimony Kerry gave after returning from Vietnam, on behalf of a group of veterans against the war, in which he told of atrocities committed by U.S. troops.
Yesterday, in California, Kerry joined the chorus of Democratic criticism, saying Bush should have known about the prisoner abuse allegations earlier.
"As president," he said, "I will not be the last to know what is going on in my command. I will demand accountability from those who serve and I will take responsibility for their actions."
In the Senate, a vote on the nomination of John D. Negroponte to be the first U.S. ambassador to post-war Iraq sparked a searching debate about the administration's handling of the war and the effect the prison abuse allegations have had on the U.S. mission there. "The president has failed the Iraqi people and has failed America," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "He has presided over the steepest and deepest fall from grace in the history of our country."
The Senate confirmed Negroponte's nomination by a vote of 95-3. The three "no" votes came from Democrats - Sens. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Harkin - whose opposed the nomination to register their opposition to Bush's policies in Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tried to quell anger from around the world, telling Jakob Kellenberger of the International Red Cross in a phone call that the administration is committed to resolving the crisis.
Calls for Rumsfeld's resignation came from the American Islamic community, too.
"As Secretary of Defense, Mr. Rumsfeld bears ultimate responsibility for the brutal and humiliating actions of American troops and for the poor handling of the scandal by the military establishment," the Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement.
Several lawmakers are calling for the Abu Ghraib prison to be razed. Sens. Larry Craig, an Idaho Republican, and Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, introduced a resolution calling for the destruction of the prison "to underscore the United States' abhorrence of the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq."
The Senate might consider the resolution next week, when it plans to take up a resolution condemning the prisoner abuse.
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