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Independent investigation of detainee abuse unnecessary, Rice says

SAN FRANCISCO—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brushed off growing calls for an independent investigation of conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention center and in an interview labeled as "absurd" a new Amnesty International report equating the facility with Soviet-era gulags.

Asked in an interview with Knight Ridder about an outside probe, Rice responded that it isn't necessary.

"The United States is as open a society as you will find," she said, and the administration is being held accountable "by a free press, by a Congress that is a separate and co-equal branch of government, and by its own expectations of what is right."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a close Bush ally, this week demanded an investigation of allegations that U.S. interrogators abused the Quran, the Muslim holy book, at Guantanamo Bay.

The Pentagon is investigating five instances in which the Quran may have been mishandled, but officials say they've found no evidence to support the incendiary charge that U.S. personnel flushed the holy book down a toilet.

Another U.S. ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, expressed anger over new reports of how detainees died while American forces were interrogating them in Afghanistan.

Amnesty International's report also said that despite "near-universal outrage" over treatment of detainees, "neither the U.S. administration nor the U.S. Congress has called for a full and independent investigation."

Rice, a Soviet scholar by training, seemed particularly indignant at Amnesty International's calling Guantanamo Bay "the gulag of our times," a reference to the prison camps under Josef Stalin.

While the human-rights group has done important work around the world, "this is unfortunate and sad," she said. At another point in the interview, she said, "I think it's absurd language."

"The United States of America is one of the strongest defenders of human rights around the world. We've fought hard and worked hard even in the circumstances of a new kind of war (on terrorism) to treat people humanely," Rice said.

The secretary of state, while acknowledging that "sometimes bad things happen," argued that the charges of Quran abuse and other violations should be put in context.

American personnel at the Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba have shown great respect for detainees' religion, for example providing them with prayer mats and arrows pointing to Mecca, the direction in which Muslims turn to pray, she said.

She also expressed concern that America's forces will be tarred unfairly by the actions of a few.

"A lot of the men and women in uniform, who people sometimes by association look at in the context of (abuses at the Iraqi prison of ) Abu Ghraib, have liberated 50 million people by their own blood and sacrifice over the last three and a half years," she said.

Rice spoke in an interview late Thursday as she flew across the country from Washington in a small Gulfstream 5 jet, much smaller than the aircraft she uses on foreign trips. It carried five aides, four members of her security detail, seven crew members and two reporters.

The secretary of state, taking a rare vacation break, seemed relaxed and happy to be heading back to California, her adopted home.

On Friday morning, Rice, a fitness junkie, worked out with members of Stanford University's football team, a practice she said she'd adopted when she was the university's provost because it allowed her to exercise uninterrupted by university staff with budget demands.

On Friday, Rice spoke to the Commonwealth Club of California, outlining Bush's second-term campaign to expand democracy around the world.

She was interrupted when two audience members, clad in black hoods and capes reminiscent of the photographs of detainees at Abu Ghraib, stood up in silent protest. They and two others were ejected from San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, chanting, "Stop the torture. Stop the killing. U.S. out of Iraq."

Rice attempted to turn the interruption to her advantage. Freedom is coming to Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and other Muslim societies, she said, and the audience applauded. "They too will be able to speak their minds. What a wonderful thing democracy is."

In the interview, Rice, who'd just come from Bush's White House meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, indicated that she's intensely focused on Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The withdrawal is a huge opportunity for the Palestinians to begin building their own state, the secretary of state said. But she also expressed worry about how much Abbas and others have to accomplish before the scheduled beginning of Israel's disengagement in August.

"When we talk about a successful withdrawal from Gaza we obviously mean that the Israelis are able to leave in conditions that are peaceful," she said. "But we also mean that the Palestinians are left with governing structures that can govern in the Gaza that then become the foundation for a broader Palestinian state.

"It's a lot to try and do in several months, but everybody seems very dedicated."

The diplomatic Quartet, consisting of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, is likely to meet again "pretty soon" to coordinate international assistance to the Palestinians to prepare for the turnover, Rice said.

Bush announced Thursday that Rice will travel to the region to get a firsthand look at preparations for disengagement.

David Welch and Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East hands at the State Department and White House, also will make trips, Rice said.

There's widespread concern that Abbas' Palestinian Authority might not be able to exert control in Gaza, where the militant group Hamas is powerful.

There's also concern that Israel will go no further than withdrawing from Gaza in ending its occupation of land claimed by the Palestinians in the West Bank.

On other topics, Rice said:

_While it would be significant to remove terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who reportedly is wounded, because "he is the face of terror in Iraq," it wouldn't end the insurgency. U.S. and Iraqi forces will have to continue attacking his network and its financial support, some of which comes from neighboring countries, she said. "Whatever's happened to Zarqawi, we're going to have to continue that kind of activity."

_The key to defeating Iraq's insurgency is bringing the country's Sunni Muslim Arabs into the political process. When that happens, "the insurgency will find less support and less acquiescence, and you'll be able to isolate the few irredeemables," she said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RICE

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050118 RICE bio

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