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Iraqi prisoner abuse may undercut U.S. foreign-policy goals

WASHINGTON—A week of revelations about abuse of Iraqi prisoners has shattered the United States' image in the Middle East and beyond, undercutting American efforts to stabilize Iraq, promote democracy and fight terrorism, according to senior U.S. officials, diplomats and Arab commentators.

With additional damning photographs and videotapes expected to surface, the damage is likely to be sustained and require time and heavy lifting to repair, they said.

"The incidents at Abu Ghraib (prison) are devastating. There's no question they constitute a very serious setback" for the world's image of America, said retired Ambassador Edward Djerejian, who chaired a commission last year that recommended far-reaching changes in diplomacy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.

"Now we have to demonstrate we are who we say we are," said Djerejian, the director of Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

Djerejian and other experts said the images of soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi detainees made it harder for the United States to convince Arabs and Muslims that it's fighting in Iraq and elsewhere to advance democracy and human rights, not for oil or to suppress Islam. That erodes a central pillar in the global struggle against radical, anti-American Islamists.

President Bush made an unusual admission of the problem in an interview released Friday. "I think that things in the Middle East for the United States are difficult right now," he told Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was more blunt. "Don't you think it's a blinding glimpse of the obvious to say we're in a bit of a hole?" he told CNN.

A rapid, thorough and open investigation of the abuses is needed to contain the damage and start repairing it, the officials and diplomats said.

Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, predicted "there will be a lasting consequence to these actions," even if they represent a small minority of military personnel and contractors.

It "has to be dealt with substantively, rather than trying to simply manage the news," Fahmy said.

He welcomed the apologies from Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but said the investigation must be pursued even if it indicted the military's system for dealing with detainees.

In recent days, the president has taken a number of steps, beyond the immediate detainee issue, to reach out to the Arab world and address long-standing complaints about U.S. policy in the region.

The State Department announced Friday that Secretary of State Colin Powell will travel to Jordan next weekend and meet with Arab leaders at an economic conference.

"The first thing the secretary will make clear ... is that we hold ourselves to a standard and we will make sure that we meet that standard, both in terms of investigating and punishing, and also fixing any problems that might exist," department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, plans to meet the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, in Berlin on May 17 to assess the chances of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The president also decided, after much debate, to give a letter of assurances to visiting King Abdullah of Jordan similar to one he gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And he publicly downplayed pledges he made to Sharon about the shape of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

One senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week that the debacle could contain a silver lining if it prompted Bush to adopt a softer approach to the world and reduced the influence of administration hard-liners, both positive developments in the diplomat's view.

It remains to be seen how far the president will go, if at all, in reorienting his foreign policy.

In the Middle East, the images of abuse have further fueled suspicion over Bush's motives for invading Iraq and have made it even more difficult for Muslims sympathetic to the United States to speak out.

One U.S. Foreign Service officer, who asked not to be identified, wondered how he could go to the region now and plausibly make the case for democracy and human rights.

"This episode has sort of damaged the views of people who were prepared to give Washington the benefit of the doubt," said Jihad Ballout, the chief spokesman for the pan-Arab al Jazeera television network, which aired Rumsfeld's congressional testimony live Friday.

Ballout, in an interview from Doha, Qatar, emphasized that he was giving his personal analysis, not speaking for al Jazeera.

"It's going to make it a little more difficult for Washington to assert ... what should be done in the Middle East," he said.

The Bush administration, along with its allies, has been preparing an initiative for political and economic reform in the Middle East to be unveiled at meetings starting next month. But it's been scaled back in the face of opposition from Arab governments to change imposed from Washington.

Over the longer term, Djerejian said, the Bush administration should implement the recommendations of his congressionally mandated commission. It called for a U.S. government-wide coordinated strategy on public diplomacy to the Middle East, with more money and trained personnel.

"It's absolutely necessary to focus again on how the United States explains itself to the Arab and Muslim world, and what it's trying to achieve," he said. "We've simply not done a good job of that."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): usiraq prison map


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