By PAUL WEST and Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Hermann
May 06, 2004 | 3:00 AM
WASHINGTON - In an attempt to quell the uproar in the Muslim world over American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, President Bush assured an Arabic language television network yesterday that "people will be held to account" for the "horrible" and "abhorrent abuses."
The president did not offer an apology or suggest that senior members of his administration would take responsibility. But he acknowledged that the week-old scandal had inflicted "terrible" damage on America's image in the Middle East.
"This is a serious matter," a somber-looking Bush said in an interview with Al-Arabiya, a satellite television channel based in the United Arab Emirates. "It's a matter that reflects badly on my country. I think people in the Middle East who want to dislike America will use this as an excuse to remind people about their dislike. I think the average citizen will say, 'This isn't a country that I've been told about.'
"The people in the Middle East must understand that this was horrible," Bush said.
The interview - one of two he gave yesterday to Arabic-language television networks - was part of a full-scale effort by the administration to try to limit political damage at home and overseas.
Investigations are being conducted into the deaths of 14 prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, including two homicides, and the abuse of at least 10 others. Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that the inquiries could bring more cases to light.
Six Army reservists from a military police unit based near Cumberland, Md., are accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners and are the only ones charged criminally in the scandal. Military investigations of the six are nearly done, and Army officials said public trials could begin soon.
The Senate intelligence committee received a classified briefing yesterday from Defense Department and intelligence officials about the allegations. Emerging from the session, Sen. Pat Roberts, the panel's chairman, said he had received no information indicating that intelligence personnel were culpable.
"So far, there appears to be no evidence of intelligence personnel that directed any of the abuses, but the investigation does continue," said Roberts, a Kansas Republican.
That statement seems at odds with the conclusions of a report by Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. The classified report found that military intelligence officers encouraged Army Reserve MPs to "set physical and mental conditions for the favorable interrogation of witnesses."
'Justice will be served'
Bush, in the interviews, repeatedly characterized the abuses as the actions of a "few people" and stressed that they do "not represent America."
Answering questions in the Map Room, an American flag in the background, the president promised the people of the Middle East that "we will investigate fully" and that "justice will be served."
"What took place in that prison," Bush said, "does not represent [the] America that I know." He said he did not learn about the photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners until they were shown on television last week.
Bush was compelled to draw a distinction between his government and that of Saddam Hussein after an interviewer from the Al-Hurra network said the images of Iraqis being abused at Abu Ghraib prison, where the dictator's henchmen had tortured Iraqis, had led many Arabs to feel that the United States behaved no better.
The Iraqi people, Bush said, should understand that "in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made." But Hussein's "trained torturers were never brought to justice under his regime. There were no investigations about mistreatment of people."
In a similar vein, the president tried to put the best face on mounting outrage on Capitol Hill about his administration's failure to warn members of Congress about details of the investigation of the abuses.
"Our Congress asks pointed questions to the leadership," he said. "That stands in contrast to dictatorships. A dictator wouldn't be answering questions about this. ... A dictator wouldn't admit reforms needed to be done.
"We have nothing to hide," Bush told Al-Hurra, a U.S.-sponsored network that is seen by few Iraqis, according to a recent Gallup poll. At the end of the interview, Bush told the correspondent, "Good job."
Bush also sought to reassure the Arab world that he isn't contemplating military action against other repressive regimes, such as Syria.
"Iraq was a unique situation," Bush said, "because Saddam Hussein had constantly defied the world and had threatened his neighbors, had used weapons of mass destruction, had terrorist ties, had torture chambers inside his country, had mass graves."
Bush defended his administration against criticism that the occupation of Iraq had led to an influx of foreign terrorists eager to fight Americans.
"Al-Qaida looks for any excuse," he said. "And they're willing to kill innocent Iraqis because Iraqis are willing to be free. Iraqis are sick of foreign people coming in their country and trying to destabilize their country. And we will help them rid Iraq of these killers."
'Tell the truth'
The president expressed confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and sidestepped a question about whether he expected anyone to step down as a result of the scandal. He said he had ordered Rumsfeld this week to "tell the Iraqi people and the world the truth" about the extent of U.S. abuses in Iraq.
Critics have suggested that Rumsfeld could be forced to resign as a result of the scandal. That view is shared by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, called for a broader examination, reaching the highest levels of the Defense Department and the CIA into how the abuses came about.
"The questions are, what are these abuses, how widespread, how did they come to happen, and how is it that these troops - the [military police], who come from small-town America - came to this?" she said. "What failure of leadership made it come to this?"
Rumsfeld is to appear tomorrow with Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a public hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, to be followed by a classified briefing for senators.
Lawmakers have faulted Rumsfeld for failing to inform them earlier of the allegations, even during a briefing he gave senators last week - the day the story was to break on CBS' 60 Minutes II.
Rumsfeld, appearing on two network morning shows, was pressed to apologize to the victims of U.S. abuse. He stopped short of doing so.
"Any American who sees the photographs that we've seen has to feel apologetic to the Iraqi people who were abused and recognize that that is something that is unacceptable and certainly un-American," he said.
Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said: "We've already said that we're sorry for what occurred, and we're deeply sorry to the families and what they must be feeling and going through."
Sen. John Kerry, Bush's likely Democratic challenger, criticized him for not going far enough. "The president of the United States needs to offer the world an explanation and needs to take appropriate responsibility," Kerry said.
Army spokesmen would not say whether the hearings involving the six Maryland-based soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners have resulted in recommendations for courts-martial. But they said they are asking military lawyers whether transcripts or other documents can be made public.
In Baghdad, the military's top spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, told reporters that Article 32 proceedings, or preliminary hearings, have concluded for three or four of the soldiers.
The soldiers are assigned to the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown. Their relatives have complained that the brutal methods were sanctioned by commanders or encouraged by interrogators for intelligence agencies.
Asked about the abuses, Kimmitt said: "It is a black mark on the United States that will be with us for a long time.
"But please understand, that was a small number of soldiers doing the wrong thing."
To an Iraqi reporter, Kimmitt said: "I apologize for what happened to your citizens."
Sun staff writer Peter Hermann reported from Baghdad.