| An Iraqi protests in front of Abu Ghraib prison. (Reuters)
Washington, May 5: Severely embarrassed by revelations about torture and mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers, the US state department today postponed the release of an annual report, ironically titled Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The US Record 2003-2004.
The postponement came as President George W. Bush appeared on two Arab news channels to assure that “there will be investigations (and) people will be brought to justice”.
He appeared on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel and the US-run Al Hurra television to say that it was important for “the people of Iraq to know that everything is not perfect. That mistakes are made. But in a democracy, as well, those mistakes will be investigated, and people will be brought to justice”.
Bush decided to address the Arab people after the army acknowledged yesterday that two Iraqi prisoners were killed by US soldiers last year. It was also revealed that 20 other deaths and assaults of prisoners remain under criminal investigation both in Iraq and Afghanistan, out of a total of 35 such cases in the last year and a half.
The President’s appearance on Arab television came a day after Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser and Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, flitted from one Arabic channel to another, apologising for the US Army’s actions in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
Rice, who has carefully cultivated the image of a strong lady not to be trifled with by the media was for once subdued when she told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya that “we are deeply sorry for what has happened to these people and what the families (of Iraqi prisoners) must be feeling”.
She also appeared on Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel which has been vilified in Washington in recent months, whose offices were bombed by Americans in Afghanistan and whose journalists were arrested and fatally shot by US occupation forces in Iraq.
“Frankly, I couldn’t be sorrier that some Iraqi prisoners had to suffer from this humiliation,” Armitage told Al Hurra.
Today, in Baghdad, Major General Geoffrey Miller, commander of US-run prisons in Iraq, told reporters on a controlled tour of Abu Ghraib that “I would like to apologise for our nation and for our military for the small number of soldiers who committed illegal or unauthorised acts here”.
Even as the president and his top aides were engaged in damage control in the Arab world, a new front on Iraq was opening for Bush at home.
Senators and members of the House of Representatives are furious that they were not told about the prisoner abuses, confirmed by a US Army General by then, at a classified briefing by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld held only hours before CBS aired pictures of naked Iraqis being interrogated in Abu Ghraib.
The Republican leader in the House of Representatives and a close ally of Bush, Tom Delay, said: “If we are going to be part and a partner in this war on terror, then we ought to be completely briefed, not just briefed on things they want us to hear.”
As the Bush administration gets increasingly enmeshed in the prison scandal, Rumsfeld’s position is beginning to look shaky: so much so the White House asserted today that the president had full confidence in his defence secretary.
Earlier in the day, Senator Joseph Biden, the senior-most Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on NBC News: “If it goes all the way to Rumsfeld, then he should resign...Who is in charge' I mean, look, every single solitary decision made almost since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been mistaken.
“Who is making these decisions' It is not the President...He ultimately makes decisions based on information presented to him by top officials in his administration. The President is being very ill served,” Biden said.
Senator John McCain, a senior Republican who was a prisoner of war in Iraq for five-and-a-half years, said: “Responsibility lies with those in charge, and that is the secretary of defence and those in the chain of command.”
State department officials told reporters privately yesterday that the human rights report had been postponed because of the prison scandal, but the official line was that the report was not ready.
Strangely, hours after reporters covering the state department were told about the postponement, secretary of state Colin Powell, appearing on CNN, admitted that he did not know anything about the delay.