Bush plans a long push to rescue Iraq policy

Posted in United States | 24-May-04 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON With the prison scandal and violence in Iraq continuing to shake the American public and Congress and to depress his personal approval ratings, President George W. Bush plans to begin on Monday a multi-week effort to better define a ‘‘clear strategy’’ for handing power to Iraqis.

In an evening speech at the U.S. Army War College, the president planned to say that U.S.-led efforts ‘‘are approaching a pivotal phase, as we approach the June 30 transfer of sovereignty in Iraq,’’ said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman. Duffy said that Bush would discuss security, efforts to improve living conditions and civil infrastructure and ways to broaden global support for a changing Iraq.

But there was no end Sunday to the flow of bad Iraq-related news for the administration. Two leading members of the Senate Armed Services Committee predicted that courts-martial in the prison abuse scandal, rather than being limited to the privates and sergeants charged so far, would affect higher-ranking officers.

In the speech Monday in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and others in the weeks to come, aides said, Bush planned to address some of the many large unanswered questions: how much power will be turned over by June 30; how stable the interim government to be sworn in then will be; whether elections can be moved forward from early next year; and how soon troops will be able to leave.

The administration will also be pressing ahead this week with negotiations on the wording of a United Nations Security Council resolution to acknowledge the interim government and the return of sovereignty, and to open the way for future foreign contributions to a multinational force in Iraq.

‘‘The president looks forward, on Monday evening, to discussing with the American people and with a global audience a clear strategy on how we need to move forward,’’ Duffy said.

Many details of the transfer, however, still depend on recommendations from the UN envoy for Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is completing a list of names for top leadership positions.

The challenge facing Bush is one of the more daunting of his presidency. What had seemed a year ago to be a dramatic victory in Iraq has deteriorated into scenes of chaos, violence and uncertainty, emblemized in recent weeks by the stark images of prisoner abuse at the hands of U.S. guards in Abu Ghraib prison.

The assassination of the president of the U.S.-named Iraqi Governing Council and the grisly video of extremists decapitating an American in Iraq have raised further doubts about how soon the coalition forces in Iraq, led by 138,000 American troops, can ensure a reasonable level of security, and when they will be able to leave.

Bush’s approval ratings are at the lowest level of his presidency, with elections less than six months away. Grumbling in Congress has grown sharper, and it has come increasingly from Republicans as well as Democrats. On Sunday, two leading members of the Senate Armed Services Committee predicted that courts-martial in the prison abuse scandal would reach far beyond the low-ranking guards charged so far.

‘‘I’m confident there will be more courts-martial,’’ said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, ‘‘and it’s just not going to be privates and sergeants.’’ Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, agreed.

Other senators on Sunday expressed concern about a report — strenuously denied by the Pentagon — that the top U.S. officer in Iraq had visited Abu Ghraib prison months ago and learned of, or possibly even witnessed, abuses long before he has said he did.

Lawmakers also said they were trying to determine whether, in copies given to Congress of a military investigation into Iraq prison abuses, as many as 2,000 pages of supporting materials might have been omitted.

Graham, who was once chief prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force in Europe, said that investigations of Abu Ghraib abuses would probably conclude that military police guards there had been ‘‘directed by military intelligence people to do some of the abuse.’’

But lawmakers interviewed on Sunday television programs were more cautious about a news report that suggested, indirectly, that Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, had learned of abuses early, while visiting Abu Ghraib.

The Pentagon denied the accuracy of that report, which was published in The Washington Post.

The Post quoted a lawyer for a soldier charged in Abu Ghraib abuses as saying that a captain at the prison would maintain that Sanchez and other senior officers had been present during some ‘‘interrogations and/or allegations of the prisoner abuse.’’ The newspaper said that the military lawyer, Captain Robert Shuck, had said in a public hearing on April 2 that Captain Donald Reese, then commander of the army reserve’s 372nd Military Police unit, was prepared to testify that Sanchez had been aware of interrogation practices.

Shuck was assigned to defend Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick 2nd of the 372nd, one of seven members of the company charged in the abuse scandal.

At a Senate hearing last week, Sanchez denied early knowledge of abuses.

Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that he was waiting to learn more but would be ‘‘stunned’’ if it were proved that Sanchez had had advance knowledge ‘‘because, you know, General Sanchez is a straight shooter.

But a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said that if Sanchez had learned belatedly of the abuses, that was a problem as well.

The senators were also asked about a Time magazine report that as many as 2,000 pages of supporting material might have been omitted from a copy provided to senators of the Abu Ghraib investigative report by Major General Antonio Taguba.

‘‘We’ll sure as hell find out’’ about the possible omission, Roberts said.

Time quoted the Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, as saying, ‘‘If there is some shortfall in what was provided, it was an oversight.’’