WASHINGTON—President Bush apologized Thursday for the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by their U.S. captors and staunchly defended embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, even as Democrats on Capitol Hill called for his dismissal.
One day after he stopped short of saying he was sorry in two interviews for Arab television, Bush apologized for the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad during a White House Rose Garden ceremony with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
"I told him (Abdullah) I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families," Bush said. "I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."
Bush's uncharacteristic apology was all but overshadowed in Washington by the mounting furor over Rumsfeld. It hit a fever pitch after Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, opened the day by calling for his ouster "for the good of our country, the safety of our troops and our image around the globe. If he doesn't resign, the president should fire him."
Before the day was out, many other Democrats on Capitol Hill had echoed Harkin's call, but Republicans held their fire.
Bush defended his defense secretary at his news conference with King Abdullah.
"Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense," Bush said. "Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars. And he is an important part of my Cabinet, and he'll stay in my Cabinet."
However, the president acknowledged that he had privately voiced displeasure to Rumsfeld in the Oval Office on Wednesday over Rumsfeld's failure to inform him sooner about the investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, which Bush gained full knowledge of only through media reports recently.
"I (told) him I should have known about the pictures and the report," Bush said.
Rumsfeld's fate—as well as that of U.S. policy on Iraq, which he has directed since the war to topple Saddam Hussein—may hinge on the defense secretary's testimony Friday before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
If Rumsfeld is forced out by political pressure, Washington's heretofore stubborn insistence on directing Iraq's occupation unilaterally also could change, because Rumsfeld's opposition to sharing power with the United Nations and others would be open to reconsideration. Rumsfeld's departure could shift the balance of power within Bush's national security team toward less confrontational figures, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, a frequent opponent of Rumsfeld.
Bush's recent outreach to the United Nations for help in shaping a new interim government in Baghdad suggests his policy may be shifting already, although major questions remain about how power would be shared and the extent of U.N. authority.
Rumsfeld's future may rest with senior Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives. So far they haven't broken ranks publicly with the Bush administration, though many made clear Thursday that Rumsfeld's testimony on Friday will influence them greatly on whether to stand behind him or call for his resignation.
"The secretary of defense has the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens there (Iraq)," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate's Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. "He knows that."
In what was perhaps a significantly hedged opening phrase, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said: "At this point in time, I do not have any loss of confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld."
Behind the scenes, however, there's growing discontent with Rumsfeld among lawmakers of both parties. For now it's focused most intensely on his lax oversight of Iraqi prisons where the abuses occurred, but it's rooted more deeply in frustrations over how Rumsfeld has managed the postwar occupation, the growing U.S. death toll in Iraq, the rising cost, the lack of an exit strategy and his arrogance in failing to work more closely with Congress.
Countering those concerns is a reluctance to disrupt Bush's national security team in the midst of a war, and Republican reluctance to give a victory to Democrats, who are indicting not only Rumsfeld's oversight of Iraqi prisoners, but also the Bush policy on Iraq.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry took a shot Thursday at Bush's leadership regarding the handling of the prison abuses.
"As president, I will not be the last to know what is going on in my command," Kerry said in Colton, Calif. "I will demand accountability for those who serve and I will take responsibility for their actions."
On Capitol Hill, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi blamed the prison scandal and the continuing violence in Iraq squarely on Rumsfeld.
"The war was planned and conducted by the Department of Defense," Pelosi said. "The DOD insisted on managing postwar Iraq and failed miserably thus far in bringing security and stability to that country because of its failure to plan adequately."
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., suggested Congress should impeach Rumsfeld if Bush won't fire him.
Some Republicans rallied around Rumsfeld and Bush.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called the Democrats' criticism nothing more than partisan politics.
"Democrats want to win the White House more than they want to win the war," DeLay said. "We can't let them think for one minute that their elected leaders aren't behind them 100 percent."
Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the Democratic broadsides a "blatant, overt political attempt to undermine the president by attacking the secretary of defense, even though these premature attacks may embolden the enemy and hurt morale."
When asked about the drumbeat for Rumsfeld's resignation, Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said, "No. Not over this, and not now, because I would be concerned that it would destabilize what we're trying to accomplish with this transition" to putting partial sovereignty into Iraqi hands on June 30.
But many Republicans are increasingly anxious.
Last weekend, a delegation of congressional Republicans called upon Karl Rove, Bush's political strategist, and urged action against defense officials responsible for missteps in Iraq. Rove assured them that Bush recognized that there have been failures, was determined to correct mistakes—and would be shaking up his defense-policy team before November.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said House Republicans remain concerned.
"I have been in a number of meetings with leadership and members who are concerned ... ," he said. "I think anybody who is not concerned is not paying attention to it."
Adding to Republicans' fears is that the war might hurt their party in November's elections. A Gallup Poll released Thursday reported Bush's approval rating was at a record low of 49 percent, and said 55 percent of respondents disapprove of his handling of Iraq, with only 42 percent approving. In January, 61 percent approved and 36 disapproved.
Likely voters in November favored Kerry 49 percent to 48 percent in a two-man matchup. Bush and Kerry tied at 47 percent when independent candidate Ralph Nader was added; Nader got 3 percent. The poll was taken May 2-4 of 1,000 adults and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Warner said his intent in calling Rumsfeld to testify Friday isn't to punish him or to attack the administration. The goal, he said, is "getting as much factual material as possible out into the public domain."
As for calls for Rumsfeld's resignation, Warner added: "He and I have had, have today and will, I think, continue to have a very cooperative working professional relationship. I'm in no way part of that."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents James Kuhnhenn and Sumana Chatterjee of the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau; David Goldstein of The Kansas City Star; Ruby Bailey of the Detroit Free Press; and Tim Funk of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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