updated 10/14/2006 3:24:19 AM ET 2006-10-14T07:24:19

Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who is in a tough re-election fight, said Friday the Abu Ghraib prison abuses were more about pornography than torture.

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The veteran Connecticut congressman said a National Guard unit was primarily responsible for the abuses although it was actually the 372nd Military Police Company from Cresaptown, Md., an Army Reserve unit.

“It was a National Guard unit run amok,” Shays said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It was torture because sex abuse is torture. It was gross and despicable ... This is more about pornography than torture.”

Shays sought to defuse controversy over his previous comments suggesting the Abu Ghraib abuses weren’t torture but instead involved a sex ring of troops.

“Now I’ve seen what happened in Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture,” Shays said at a debate Wednesday.

“It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops from (Maryland) who were involved in a sex ring and they took pictures of soldiers who were naked,” added Shays. “And they did other things that were just outrageous. But it wasn’t torture.”

The lawmaker’s comments were in a transcript of the debate provided by his opponent, Diane Farrell. Shays’ campaign, contacted Friday, did not dispute the comments.

At least 11 soldiers convicted over abuses
Abu Ghraib is the Baghdad prison where abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers led to an international scandal. Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib were brutalized and sexually humiliated by military police and intelligence agents in the fall of 2003. At least 11 U.S. soldiers have been convicted in the scandal.

2006 key racesElected in 1987, Shays has distinguished himself as a moderate Republican who often breaks with his party, especially on his signature issue of campaign finance reform. But in the last week, his comments have echoed conservative talk radio.

Shays defended House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s handling of a congressional page scandal, saying no one died like at Chappaquiddick in 1969 when Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy was involved.

“I know the speaker didn’t go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day,” the embattled Connecticut congressman told The Hartford Courant in remarks published Wednesday.

“Dennis Hastert didn’t kill anybody,” he added.

In the debate, the congressman had been asked what the government should do to restore the nation’s moral image in the wake of torture accusations at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.

Shays said Friday he wished he had more fully explained his views at the debate.

“I was maybe not as expansive as I needed to be,” he said. “Of course, the degrading of anyone is torture. We need to deal with it.”

Shays said his debate comments reflected the disturbing photos he has seen of Abu Ghraib abuses: “Naked Iraqis, naked Americans, Americans having sex ... gross and despicable pictures.”

Bruising re-election fight
Shays is waging a bruising re-election fight against Farrell.

“Once again, Chris is trying to back away from an earlier statement because it’s politically expedient,” Farrell said Friday. “It’s typical Chris.”

Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, who appeared at a news conference with Farrell on Friday, said people are going to jail because of torture at Abu Ghraib.

“It’s not because it was some pornography ring. I’m surprised anyone would make that suggestion,” Dodd said. “The suggestion that somehow this was something less than that is, again, almost bordering on the bizarre.”

During the campaign stop, Dodd criticized a direct-mail flier from the National Republican Congressional Committee titled, “Diane Farrell: Coffee Talk with the Taliban,” that had been sent to voters in the southwestern Connecticut district.

“This is absolutely the worst kind of politics in America,” Dodd said. “The people who associate themselves with that party and these things must be held accountable.”

Farrell has received money and an endorsement from the Council for a Livable World, a 44-year-old Washington, D.C., organization that works to reduce nuclear weapons. In the mailer, Republicans said the Council has a “leader who wanted someone to sit down and talk with the Taliban instead of just forcibly removing them from power.”

In a statement Friday, Shays said the NRCC had crossed the line with the mailing and called on the Republican organization to “put an end to sending this type of garbage.”

On its Web site, the council calls the NRCC claim bogus and says board member Roger Fisher, an expert on conflict resolution who teaches at Harvard University, “recommended combining carrots and sticks to persuade the government of Afghanistan to turn over Osama bin Laden.”

Recently, Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist said during a trip to Afghanistan that the Afghan war against Taliban guerrillas can never be won militarily and he favored bringing “people who call themselves Taliban” into the government.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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