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Bush speech greeted largely with skepticism

Arabs and even many Americans were unconvinced by President Bush’s pledge Wednesday to punish Americans who abused Iraqi prisoners.
Iraqi men watch President Bush’s speech Wednesday in a cafe in downtown Baghdad.
Iraqi men watch President Bush’s speech Wednesday in a cafe in downtown Baghdad.Khalid Mohammed / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Arabs and others, including many Americans, were unconvinced by President Bush’s televised pledge Wednesday to punish Americans who abused and killed Iraqi prisoners, saying the gesture amounted to too little, too late.

“This is not going to wash with the Arab audience,” said Jawad al-Anani, the former foreign minister of Jordan. “It’s a good gesture, but he should have publicly apologized.”

Bush sought to repair America’s image among Iraqis and Arabs by making a personal pledge on Arab television that Americans behind the abuse and killings of Iraqi detainees would be punished.

But his words rang hollow among many ordinary Arabs.

“The damage is done,” said Reem Hosari, a Palestinian in Dubai. “Iraqis lost confidence in the big ideas of American democracy and freedom. Regardless of what he said, they have seen the opposite of what they were promised.

“Under a democracy these things should not happen, at all.”

‘I do believe the president’
Jihan, a 29-year-old Lebanese woman who did not give her last name, said: “This is a show. They’re trying to cover this up. If they hadn’t been exposed, Bush would not have done this.”

But several men sipping tea in a cafe in Baghdad said Bush’s pledge to punish the culprits could be credible if the Americans fulfilled other pledges first.

One of the men, Abdul-Kader Abdul-Rahim, said he did not doubt that the U.S. military would investigate the abuses, as Bush promised. But he doubted it would change things in Iraq, where people chafe under foreign occupation.

“I do believe the president when he talks about investigation, because they live in a democracy, and in this democracy even Bush can be investigated,” he said after watching Bush’s interview on U.S.-funded Al Hurra television.

“But what is happening in Iraq is different from their democratic regimes. We’re all treated like prisoners here,” he added.

Americans outraged
Last week’s pictures of naked and hooded detainees, first shown on the U.S. television network CBS and later broadcast on Arab televisions and splashed across newspapers, inflamed Arabs. But many Americans were also outraged.

“If true, it is horrible, it is disgusting,” said Constance Wynne-Markham, 40, of Hastings, N.Y.

Kathleen Black, an immigration lawyer in San Francisco, said she was concerned that the Bush administration had covered up the scandal after having known about the abuses since January.

“It brings back memories of My Lai in Vietnam,” Black said, referring to the massacre in 1968 when U.S. troops razed a South Vietnam village, slaughtering hundreds of men, women and children. That incident did not come to light for 18 months.

Newspapers across the nation denounced the behavior displayed in the pictures. In an editorial Wednesday, The New York Times said, “The most enduring images of the occupation may be those pictures of grinning American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners.”

But initial indications were that the controversy would not split the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.

The Italian government said Wednesday that the reported abuse was terrible but did not change the grounds for its 2,700 troops’ being in Iraq.

“We are there to contribute to the transition of a society, which knew a terrible dictatorship, toward true democracy,” Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters after meeting his French counterpart, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in Paris.

France, which led the diplomatic opposition to U.S. military action in Iraq, said the reported abuse was “totally unacceptable” and clearly a violation of international conventions.