The U.S. State Department is scrambling to limit the damage and global fallout as outrage over U.S. soldiers’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners continues throughout the Arab world, and beyond.
The Bush administration has begun a media blitz to counter the growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world, where Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged to CNN’s Larry King “we are going through a rough spot right now."
President Bush expressed outrage over the abuse in interviews with two Arabic language networks – al Arabiya, whose coverage in Iraq has been criticized by the U.S. in the past as inflammatory, and the U.S.-funded and not so far widely watched, al Hurra television network.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also appeared on al Arabiya and apologized on Tuesday.
Powell fronts international PR machine
Powell, a former soldier, called the acts featured in the photos “immoral,” and “totally out of character of what we expect from our men and women in uniform,” when speaking at the United Nations earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Powell went on to say that the soldiers behavior in the pictures, "is inconsistent with their code as soldiers, it's inconsistent with our values system, and we are doing everything we can to learn all about this matter and all about our actions in other places of detention that we are responsible for."
In addition to Arabic-language interviews, Bush administration officials are taking nearly every opportunity to express outrage, surprise, shock, and dismay at the abuse, and to tell the world this abuse was the work of a small number of soldiers and their actions should not overshadow the help thousands of other U.S. forces are providing to the Iraqi people.
In an administration known for fierce loyalty, Bush has even gone so far as to privately rebuke Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for his handling of the prison abuse allegations.
According to the White House, Bush is angered by the fact that he was only aware of the investigation into alleged abuses in the most general terms and did not learn of the severity of the situation until he saw the photographs first broadcast by CBS last week.
The Senate Armed Services committee has called Rumsfeld to an open hearing on Friday, to discuss what he knew and when about the abuse allegations, in what will surely be a heated exchange.
U.S. officials, however, concede the problem may be broader. As additional photos of prisoner abuse emerged in the Washington Post on Thursday, there are cries throughout the Arab world for independent investigations.
Administration officials, including Powell, say interrogation practices beyond this “wing at Abu Ghraib” are being looked at in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba “to make sure we haven’t overlooked anything,” said Powell.
U.S. efforts to limit the world backlash is going beyond the media blitz.
American embassies are on the front line in countries overseas, outside of Iraq, and are fighting their own American image battles daily.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage predicted an uphill struggle. “It’s not something that can be fixed in a day or a month. It’s going to be a long process and we just dedicate ourselves to the effort,” Armitage told Al Hurra.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters on Wednesday that Washington is telling foreign governments that justice will be done, that the United States is taking steps to make sure such actions are “never” repeated, and such acts of abuse are in “contravention” to U.S. policies.
But some observers lament this week’s media blitz as a slow response to a major burgeoning problem.
It wasn’t until days after CBS first broadcast the now infamous photographs of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib that U.S. officials took to the air waves en masse. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt first revealed the allegations — sans pictures — in January.
Most officials have publicly and privately expressed shock at the behavior of the U.S. troops. One U.S. official said “because of who we are as Americans…no one could have imagined” soldiers would have committed these actions.
U.S. officials remain concerned that the hard work done by U.S. troops in Iraq is being rolled back by the revelations, and at an especially critical time – less than two months before the U.S. transfers limited sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.
With the negative effect of the Iraq prison abuse in mind, a senior State Department official said Armitage delayed Wednesday’s planned release of the U.S. annual human rights report.
“It's important to demonstrate" that the United States is taking action in response to its own human rights abuses "before we stand up and tell the world" they need to fix their problems, the official said.