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Republicans aren't pushing to conduct hearings on Iraqi prisoner abuse

WASHINGTON—New information about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq is emerging every day in private briefings to members of Congress, but there'll be no public hearings until after the August congressional recess, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner said Thursday.

Warner, R-Va., said he would wait to schedule hearings until after the Pentagon finishes its seven investigations. None is expected to be finished before the congressional break, which begins next Friday. But Warner said he was confident that "everything that can be done is being done to analyze what happened in the past and to prevent any recurrence in the future."

The prisoner-abuse scandal galvanized Congress and the country in April when CBS News aired photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Later, an internal Pentagon report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba documented the abuses, which included using dogs to intimidate prisoners, forcing detainees to masturbate and threatening prisoners with electrocution by attaching wires to their bodies.

Military officials on Thursday gave senators a classified update on the Pentagon's investigations. "Based on what I learned today, I can say with, I think, relative assurance that America and the world will not see a similar series of incidents," Warner said.

But Warner's committee hasn't held any public hearings on the new information since May 19.

Since then, Congress has been relatively quiet on the scandal. The Defense Department has given more than a dozen classified briefings. Members who attend are barred from discussing the findings publicly.

The Pentagon has released documents on the abuse piece-meal. In May, it omitted 2,000 pages of Taguba's report. Then, after it certified the report complete, the Pentagon omitted a draft memo to the secretary of defense that reportedly links the approval of questionable interrogation practices to top civilian leadership.

And until this week, the Defense Department also withheld critical reports by the International Committee for the Red Cross, which document abuses and conditions at Abu Ghraib. The Senate had asked for the reports in May. On Thursday, the Pentagon gave senators 24 Red Cross reports.

Critics worry that current investigations by the Defense Department won't go far enough.

The Pentagon "will not be able to fully pursue the abuse allegations, particularly in light of allegations that top U.S. officials may have ordered, condoned or willfully ignored the torture of detainees," said Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth. Roth has been documenting abuses by U.S. forces in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and the prison for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Roth and some congressional Democrats want an independent bipartisan panel to investigate who ordered the interrogation techniques in Iraq. They worry that pressure from the Bush administration in an election year may undermine oversight hearings.

Warner and others on the Senate Armed Services panel oppose creation of an independent panel.

Warner denied he felt any political pressure not to press for public hearings. Hearings aren't helpful without the facts that are expected to emerge from the Defense Department reports, he said.

In addition, he said he doesn't want to jeopardize the ongoing investigations of seven soldiers who've been accused of abusing detainees. The soldiers may be called as witnesses after their military trials.

Warner has invited L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, to testify next week before his committee. So far Bremer, who has returned to civilian life, hasn't responded.

Bremer isn't expected to have direct information related to the prisoner abuse, according to congressional aides. However, he reportedly heard complaints from Iraqis about wide-scale detentions of men suspected of participating in the anti-occupation insurgency.

Lawmakers still have many unanswered questions about the abuses and interrogation procedures at Abu Ghraib. They're particularly interested in the investigation on the interrogation procedures, but that report has been delayed until at least mid-August to give investigators, led by Lt. Gen. Anthony Jones and Maj. Gen. George Fay, more time to interview high-ranking commanders, such as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who until recently oversaw U.S. forces in Iraq.

"I have a hundred questions. Starting with, where does this go in the chain of command?" said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Senate Armed Services panel. McCain, a former Navy pilot, was held captive and tortured for five years as a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

The Geneva Convention on prisoner treatment applied in Iraq, where detainees were considered prisoners of war. Lawmakers want to know if the line became blurred over what was acceptable, particularly as the insurgency increased.

They also want to know if orders from Washington to extract intelligence on the insurgency led to the abuses.

Given all the reports on abuses from the Red Cross, "should a reasonable person have said we have a huge problem and respond to it immediately? Or did someone say to ignore the problem?" said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee.


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