LOS ANGELES, May 5 -- Sen. John F. Kerry on Wednesday called the Bush administration's response to revelations that some U.S. soldiers had abused Iraqi prisoners "slow and inappropriate," but the Democratic challenger stopped short of demanding that President Bush issue a formal apology.
"No matter what happens, some American troops under some circumstance have engaged in behavior that . . . is absolutely unacceptable," Kerry said at a largely Hispanic high school here. "The world needs to hear from the president that the United States of America regrets any kind of abuse of this kind . . . because we have to show the world that we're willing to correct our own mistakes."
Kerry's comments -- in his first news conference in nearly three weeks -- came as pressure escalated on the administration from the world community and Democrats over reports and photographs showing Iraqis being abused by their American captors in a Baghdad prison. Kerry has not commented on the growing controversy until now.
"The horrifying abuse of Iraqi prisoners which the world has now seen is absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable and the response of the administration, certainly the Pentagon, has been slow and inappropriate," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said in a noisy lunch area.
"I want to know, as I think Americans do, is this isolated? Does it go up the chain of command? Who knew what when?" he said. "All of those questions have to be answered, so I don't want to shoot from the hip."
When pressed on whether Bush should apologize, Kerry said: "The president of the United States needs to offer the world an explanation and needs to take appropriate responsibility. And if that includes apologizing for the behavior of those soldiers and what happened, we ought to do that."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt responded by saying, "It is inappropriate for Senator Kerry to play politics with this issue."
The Massachusetts senator's remarks came in the middle of a three-day swing to push his education proposals and connect with Hispanic voters. Facing recent criticism about not aggressively reaching out to Latinos, Kerry for the second day brought his education plans straight to the Hispanic community, celebrating the Cinco de Mayo holiday at Woodrow Wilson High School.
Speaking Spanish at various times, Kerry reiterated his charge that the Bush administration broke its promise to fully fund the No Child Left Behind plan, which was designed to raise school standards. "President Bush promised help. He promised . . . billions of dollars would be coming to Americans," Kerry said. "The fact is, he hasn't tried to fight for that money because this president believes it's more important to give people who make more than $200,000 another tax cut."
Kerry pledged to fund the program, and to provide full in-state college tuition to students who commit to volunteer for public service after graduating.
"Maybe George Bush is still trying to figure out he made a mistake over the last four years. That's an easy assignment," said Kerry, jabbing at Bush for not being able to name a mistake he has made since he took office.
Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, also met privately with Cardinal Roger Mahoney. Kerry, a Roman Catholic who has been criticized by church leaders for his positions on abortion and some other social issues, said he requested the meeting but declined to give any details.
Kerry will continue his education swing Thursday, with an appearance at a high school in San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign had to deal with an awkward situation. After criticizing Bush on Tuesday for riding in a Canadian-made bus on his tour of the Midwest, it turns out that during the primaries, Kerry's Real Deal Express bus was made in Canada.
"Once again, John Kerry's campaign is saying one thing and doing another. They have launched a political attack while they themselves chartered the same exact bus," Schmidt said.
Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade said the campaign was unaware it was using a Canadian-made bus because it was renting from U.S. charter companies. Wade added that since Kerry all but clinched the nomination, the campaign is certain it has been riding in only U.S.-made buses.