WASHINGTON - President Bush expressed "deep disgust" yesterday over allegations that a group of U.S. troops - at least six of them in an Army Reserve unit from Maryland - abused and humiliated Iraqi prisoners, saying that those responsible would be punished.
"I shared a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated," Bush told reporters.
The president added: "Those few people who did that do not reflect the nature of the men and women we've sent overseas. And there will be an investigation. ... They'll be taken care of."
Bush's comments came as the British army said it was investigating separate allegations that its soldiers abused an Iraqi prisoner, and as the United Nations and several human rights groups denounced the alleged offenses by U.S. troops.
The images of Westerners callously humiliating Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad could inflame anti-American sentiment in the Arab world at a delicate time. U.S. officials say they fear the revelations will set back their efforts to win the trust of Iraqis before the Bush administration's June 30 deadline for handing over sovereignty to Iraqis.
The site of the alleged abuses also represents an unfortunate symbol for U.S. troops, who are eager to be seen as liberators. The Abu Ghraib prison was infamous during Saddam Hussein's rule as a den of torture.
Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, said he was "deeply disturbed" by photographs of smiling U.S. troops standing over naked Iraqi prisoners and subjecting them to humiliation.
6 face courts-martial
Six Army reservists attached to the 372nd Military Police Company, a reserve unit based near Cumberland, are subject to possible courts-martial and criminal prosecution: Staff Sgt. Ivan L. "Chip" Frederick II, Spc. Charles A. Graner, Sgt. Javal S. Davis, Spc. Megan Ambuhl, Spc. Sabrina Harman and Pvt. Jeremy C. Sivits.
Eight others in the unit face less severe administrative charges. In addition, another member, Pvt. Lynndie R. England, has been reassigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where she is being detained, her family says. It is not clear whether she will face charges. England and Graner are engaged, her parents said.
A total of 17 people were suspended from their posts at the prison after a military investigation. Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, the highest-ranking officer to be suspended, faces administrative charges. One of those dismissed was a private contractor working as an interpreter.
Flashing thumbs up
Graphic photographs aired this week on CBS' 60 Minutes II showed Iraqi prisoners apparently being sexually humiliated while U.S. soldiers gleefully looked on, smiling and flashing thumbs-up signs.
An account sent to relatives by one of the soldiers charged describes a range of abuses inside the prison. Sergeant Frederick describes how detainees were left in isolation cells for days without clothes - or sometimes in women's underwear - with no light, ventilation, water or toilet.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibit "outrages upon the personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment" of detainees.
Frederick's notes indicate that Army intelligence and criminal investigators witnessed and even encouraged the abuse. Human rights groups said the role of higher-ranking soldiers should be investigated. Some expressed concern that private contractors, operating in Iraq "with virtual impunity," might be violating international law.
"Allowing private contractors to operate in a legal vacuum is an invitation to abuse," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Official's help sought
Among the charges lodged against the soldiers are aggravated assault and desecration of a corpse. The military has not disclosed other charges, which could include committing indecent acts, battery and dereliction of duty.
Sivits, another of the charged soldiers, defended himself against the abuse accusations in a March e-mail that sought help from a congressman. Sivits wrote that he could be seen in one of the prison photographs cutting the flex cuffs off a prisoner.
"You can clearly see I am actually trying to help the detainee," he wrote. "His hands were deep purple. I told the [noncommissioned officer in charge] that we had to get the cuffs off him before he lost his hands!"
Karpinski, the highest-ranking officer to be suspended, commanded the 800th Military Police Brigade, based in Uniondale, N.Y., to which the Maryland unit was temporarily attached. She was responsible for running the prison system in Iraq.
Reached by phone at her home in South Carolina, Karpinski declined to say when she had returned from Iraq or to discuss the charges she faced.
Bush's harsh comments yesterday provoked criticism from Gary Myers, Frederick's attorney, who argued that they violated military rules against "unlawful command influence" - when a superior commander inappropriately interferes in a disciplinary proceeding.
Lawmakers from Maryland said they were profoundly concerned about the accusations.
"The charges are very disturbing," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat. "They are a matter for military justice and should be pursued appropriately."
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican whose district is home to the 372nd, urged that the accused be treated fairly.
Sun staff writers Ariel Sabar and Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.
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