Rumsfeld visits Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison

Posted in Iraq | 13-May-04 | Source: CNN

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaks to U.S. troops Thursday at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- at the center of the firestorm over the Abu Ghraib prison scandal -- touched down in Baghdad on Thursday, where he visited Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of Iraqi prisoner abuse.

Rumsfeld and a delegation, including Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Pentagon attorneys, visited the U.S.-run prison -- once used by the Saddam Hussein regime for torture -- during the one-day trip.

Rumsfeld gave a rousing speech to hundreds of troops and military police there. Later, he and Myers delivered remarks at a town hall meeting and answered troops' questions.

Both men were greeted by applause and cheers.

"We've spent the day talking to people and seeing the steps that have been taken to see that those types of abuses to people for whom we have a responsibility and custody will not happen again," Rumsfeld said.

"But it's important for each of you to know that that is not the values of America and it's not your values. And I know that and you know that and your families know that. And we're proud of you -- each of you. We're proud of your service."

Their surprise trip comes as violence persists throughout the country, particularly in southern Iraq. U.S. forces have been engaging Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army in Najaf, Karbala and Kufa.

The trip to Iraq, Rumsfeld's fifth since the war started, comes the day after two more troops died in the war. A U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday night in a Baghdad roadside bombing and a Marine died of wounds received in fighting Wednesday in Al Anbar province, hiking the U.S. death toll since the war began to 778.

In their appearance before troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Rumsfeld and Myers indicated that those who committed prisoner abuse will be dealt with fairly.

Referring to the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, Rumsfeld said, "In recent days there's been a focus on a few who've betrayed our values and sullied the reputation of our country." He said he "was stung" by the revelations, called them a "body blow," but promised justice.

Questions from the audience involved subjects such as equipment, reservists and troop stregnth.

Referring to the countries participating in the coalition, Rumsfeld said, "A lot of us are reasonably convinced that if we can get another U.N. Security Council resolution, which we believe we can, that it would assist in getting maybe one or two handfuls of countries to add troops that have thus far not felt they could do so."

He said discussions are "quite far along with respect to a number of them and I'm encouraged."

During his flight to the region, Rumsfeld denied his agenda was to calm the storm over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

"If anybody thinks that I'm [in Iraq] to throw water on a fire, they're wrong," Rumsfeld told reporters on board his flight to Iraq.

"We care about the detainees being treated right. We care about soldiers behaving right. We are about command systems working."

Seven soldiers face criminal charges in the abuse case, and three of them have been formally referred for court-martial. (Full story)

Investigations into the mistreatment continue.

Meanwhile, photos of the alleged abuse have prompted outrage --particularly in the Arab world -- and led to days of hearings on Capitol Hill.

The Army has been investigating the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib since January, but the case erupted last month when CBS broadcast graphic photographs of American troops posing for photographs with naked, hooded prisoners.

Rumsfeld has been strongly criticized for not alerting the president and Congress earlier about the pictures.

Lawmakers are focusing on how high up the chain of command culpability for the abuse goes.

While Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials have described the abuse as an aberration, some lawmakers have suggested in their questions that the military police -- who acted as guards for the prisoners -- may have been taking their cues from military intelligence.

The author of a military report on Abu Ghraib, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, has also questioned the role of military intelligence at the prison. But he told a Senate panel Tuesday that there were no "direct orders" or written policies that sanctioned the abuse of prisoners.

GOP leaders oppose releasing more images

In Washington, top GOP leaders came out Wednesday against the release of hundreds of fresh images showing prisoner abuse, saying they could compromise the prosecution of those soldiers implicated in the acts and further inflame tensions in Iraq.

The congressional leaders made the statements after lawmakers gathered behind close doors to view what several described as "appalling" and "horrifying" pictures, slides and video clips of abuse and sexual acts.

"Take our word for it. They're disgusting," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority whip.

McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, and Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, all said the pictures should be kept under wraps.

"In my view, and it's solely my view, these pictures, at this time, by the executive branch, should not be released into the public domain," Warner, R-Virginia, said, citing the possibility that more images of abuse end up "inspiring the enemy."

Sen. John Warner talks to reporters Wednesday after viewing Iraqi prisoner abuse photos. Behind him is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
Iraqi captors who recently beheaded American Nicholas Berg, 26 -- an act captured on videotape by those who held him -- said the killing was in part a response to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. (Full story)

But other lawmakers said the prison abuse images should be released, arguing that withholding them would only prolong the controversy.

A handful of pictures were leaked to the news media late last month.

They showed prisoners cowering before attack dogs and forced to pose in sexually humiliating positions. One widely publicized photo showed a hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his hands.

Some lawmakers have urged the Bush administration to allow the photographs to be released in order to prevent further shocking disclosures.

"I think the only hope that we have, really, of redeeming ourselves here and winning back some of the support that this incident has cost us [is] if we act as an open society that will deal with problems openly, that will hold people accountable," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, agreed.

"Every time we have these photographs dribbled out or some expansion of that situation, it is not good for America," Chambliss said. "And we need to conclude it. And getting all of these photographs out at one time is the way to do it."

Warner conceded that even if defense officials decide not to release the material, it will get out anyway.

"No one knows how many copies have been made and the distribution, whether it's in the United States or worldwide," he said.

In a related development, one of the seven U.S. soldiers facing criminal charges in connection with the abuse scandal told a Denver, Colorado, television station that she was ordered to pose in photographs with naked Iraqi prisoners.

Pfc. Lynndie England told KCNC-TV that she was told by "persons in my chain of command" to appear in the pictures. (Full story)

CNN's Ed Henry, Joe Johns, Ted Barrett and Steve Turnham contributed to this report.