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May 7, 2004

Rummy on the Rocks

by Jim Lobe

With the scandal over the abuse of prisoners in U.S. military custody in Iraq still growing, the administration of President George W. Bush appears to be shaken to its very core.

While the immediate question is whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could be sufficiently persuasive in Congressional testimony scheduled Friday to survive the fast-spreading calls for his resignation, the larger issue has abruptly become whether the US occupation of Iraq, for which the administration has just asked an additional 25 billion dollars this year, is sustainable.

That question was put front and center Thursday by Rep. John Murtha, a conservative and highly influential Democrat close to the Pentagon. In private meetings earlier this week, he reportedly told fellow-Democrats that the war was "unwinnable" and Thursday issued a blistering attack on the administration's strategy and "miscalculations" on Iraq.

"We either have to mobilize or we have to get out," Murtha declared in an emotional press conference in which he disclosed the content of a series of written warnings he had sent to Bush and other top officials since his first of many visits to Iraq since September last year.

"Today our forces in Iraq are undermanned, under-resourced, inadequately trained and poorly supervised. There's a lack of leadership, stemming from the very top," he said, adding that the most recent scandal should result in resignations "right up the chain of command."

Murtha's fury reflected a growing sense that the administration, whose internal splits are now more apparent than ever before, has lost its way in Iraq. This is a point underlined by the unexpected request for 25 billion dollars more – bringing total spending on Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 to 191 billion dollars.

That the Bush administration has very little idea about what to do was made clear by the news – printed in bold across the front pages of the morning's Washington Post and the New York Times – that Bush had "privately" scolded Rumsfeld for not warning him about the photographs before they were broadcast.

While Bush insisted Thursday that the defense secretary will "stay in my Cabinet," the fact that White House officials, presumably with the president's authorization, briefed reporters on the "private" dressing-down was unprecedented.

It also encouraged Rumsfeld's State Department rivals to pile on. State officials, who were also furious that the Pentagon had kept them in the dark about its own investigation, told reporters that they had repeatedly warned Rumsfeld and his top aides about problems relating to detainees, not only in Abu Ghraib prison, but also in Afghanistan and at the detention facility at the US navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"It's something Powell has raised repeatedly – to release as many detainees as possible – and, second, to ensure that those in custody are properly cared for and treated," a "senior State Department official" was quoted as telling the Post.

But Rumsfeld, an experienced bureaucratic infighter, was not entirely defenseless. Without quoting a source, the Los Angeles Times reported a few hours after the Post went to press that Rumsfeld was informed about abuses at Abu Ghraib in January and personally told Bush about them shortly thereafter.

That in turn led to embarrassing questions at the White House briefing Thursday about what Bush had done with that information. The questions echoed those raised by the revelation just a few weeks ago about what the president had done after hearing an intelligence briefing on al-Qaeda's intention to hijack airplanes inside the United States one month before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Both the White House and Rumsfeld are now insisting that they had only been told about the abuses orally and had never seen the photographs until CBS' Sixty Minutes II broadcast them last week.

Whether that explanation will suffice to contain the scandal, however, is highly doubtful, particularly in light of reports that the photographs may only be the tip of a very large iceberg.

In an interview on Fox News Wednesday night, Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter who broke the prisoner story in The New Yorker, predicted that "(I)t's going to get much worse. This kind of stuff was much more widespread....I can tell you just from the phone calls I've had in the last 24 hours, ...there are other photos out there. ...There are videotapes of stuff that you wouldn't want to mention on national television..."

Hersh based his prediction largely on the 53-page report by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, parts of which have remained classified.

He investigated the abuses beginning in January, when Rumsfeld was first informed about them, and finished his report in early March. The report put much of the responsibility for what had taken place at Abu Ghraib prison on the application of interrogation tactics used against Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo against captives in Iraq and Afghanistan itself.

The fact that Rumsfeld – who had the time to attend a festive black-tie dinner of the White House Correspondents Association Saturday night, two days after the photos were first aired – admitted to not having read the full report as recently as Wednesday this week has emboldened those, still mostly Democrats, who are now calling on him to resign.

But Democrats are not alone. Republican lawmakers have privately told reporters that they are fed up with his arrogance and inflexibility, particularly on the issue that Murtha is most angry about – the administration's failure to provide more troops to secure Iraq, and their own safety, both during and after the invasion.

Several leading Republican lawmakers, including some who are considered very close to the White House, also complained bitterly about not being informed about the abuses or the investigation in advance.

Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran and senior member of the subcommittee that deals with Pentagon appropriations, poured scorn on the administration's optimistic predictions about Iraq.

Without explicitly stating that the war was "unwinnable," he at one point said the public had turned against it and that it was unlikely the administration would provide the troops needed to stabilize the situation to such an extent that other countries would be willing to help out.

While Murtha's angry defection created shockwaves in Congress, a stunning attack on Rumsfeld by the generally hawkish Washington Post spread through the capital with unaccustomed force.

Entitled "Mr. Rumsfeld's Responsibility," the lead editorial of the Post put the blame for the abuse scandal squarely on his shoulders by arguing that his policies on incommunicado detention and refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions have created a "lawless regime in which prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan have been humiliated, beaten, tortured, and murdered – in which, until recently, no one has been held accountable."

Rumsfeld's statements since the disclosure of the abuses, moreover, suggested that "(h)is message remains the same: that the United States need not be bound by international law and that the crimes Gen. Taguba reported are not, for him a priority. That attitude has undermined the American military's observance of basic human rights and damaged this country's ability to prevail in the war on terrorism," the Post observed.

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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