President Bush assured the Arab world this morning that Americans are "appalled" by the abuse of prisoners at the hands of U.S. guards in Iraq, conceding that it "reflects badly on my country."
And, in a pair of interviews with networks aimed at Arabic-speaking audiences, he promised that the United States would investigate the allegations, bring those guilty to justice and make sure that any "systemic" problems are corrected.
But he reminded his audience that in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, "trained torturers were never brought to justice" whereas in a democracy, such as the United States, accusations are handled "transparently."
"It is important for the Iraqi people to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made," he said in the first of the interviews, with U.S.-sponsored al-Hurra television. "But in a democracy, as well, those mistakes will be investigated, and people will be brought to justice. We're an open society. We're a society that is willing to investigate, fully investigate, in this case, what took place in that prison."
Bush's comments followed explicit apologies today by two top Army generals in Iraq and by his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday.
Bush made no formal apology.
"The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom," Bush said in the first interview. "The America I know cares about every individual. The America I know has sent troops into Iraq to promote freedom -- good, honorable citizens that are helping the Iraqis every day."
"We've discovered these abuses. They're abhorrent abuses. They do not reflect -- the actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people. The American people are just as appalled at what they have seen on TV as Iraqi citizens have. The Iraqi citizens must understand that."
Asked if he still had confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, he said, "Of course."
Asked if he would allow the International Red Cross and other human rights organizations to visit prisons in Iraq, he said, "Of course we'll cooperate with the International Red Cross. They're a vital organization . . ."
Bush granted the interviews in response to a global outcry following dissemination of photographs over the weekend showing Iraqis being abused by their American captors in a Baghdad prison. Bush said he first saw the pictures on television, noting that he was aware of the investigation that preceded the broadcast on CBS's "60 Minutes."
The Arab journalists questioning the president took the opportunity to seek his assessment of overall progress in Iraq.
In response, Bush urged Iraqis to "deal with" the militias loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr that have been battling U.S. troops across Baghdad and in the south of Iraq.
"I think he ought to be dealt with by the Iraqi citizens who are getting tired of him occupying the holiest of holy sites," Bush said.
" . . . Mr. Sadr is occupying those sites as if they're his, and I think the Iraqi citizens are getting tired of that. We will deal with his militias, as will the Iraqi forces deal with his militias. Militias are people who are willing to kill, intimidate and try to take matters into their own hands, which is not the way democracy functions. Free societies do not allow thugs and -- to roam streets and hold people hostage to their whims. The Iraqis will deal with Mr. Sadr."
Bush was also asked about criticism that the war in Iraq has strengthened al Qaeda. "Do you remember September the 11th, 2001?" he said to an interviewer from al Arabiya.
"Al Qaeda attacked the United States. They killed thousands of our citizens. I will never forget what they have done to us. They declared war on us. And the United States will pursue them. And so long as I'm the president, we will be determined, steadfast, and strong as we pursue those people who kill innocent lives because they hate freedom.
"And, of course, al Qaeda looks for any excuse," Bush said. "But the truth of the matter is, they hate us, and they hate freedom, and they hate people who embrace freedom. And they're willing to kill innocent Iraqis because Iraqis are willing to be free. Iraqis are sick of foreign people coming in their country and trying to destabilize their country. And we will help them rid Iraq of these killers."
Also today, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that Rumsfeld will testify before his committee about the prison controversy on Friday morning.
In Iraq today, two top generals issued formal apologies in advance of the president's comments.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of U.S. military operations in Iraq, used his regular briefing in Baghdad to declare that "my army's been embarrassed by this. My army's been shamed by this. And on behalf of my army, I apologize for what those soldiers did to your citizens. It was reprehensible. It was unacceptable."
Kimmitt was peppered with questions by Arabic-speaking journalists during his briefing about the abuse and about complaints they said they had heard from individual detainees. He said all complaints would be investigated.
The general in charge of the U.S. prisons apologized unreservedly as well. "I would like to apologize for our nation and for our military for the small number of soldiers who committed illegal or unauthorized acts here at Abu Ghraib," Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller told Arab and Western reporters who were being taken on a military tour of the prison, according to the Associated Press.
"These are violations not only of our national policy but of how we conduct ourselves as members of the international community," Miller said.
"It has brought a cloud over all the efforts of all of our soldiers and we will work our hardest to re-establish the trust that Iraqis feel for the coalition and the confidence people in America have in their military."
As Miller spoke to reporters in cellblock 1A, where the photos showing prisoner abuse were taken, five women inmates screamed, shouted and waved their arms through the iron bars.
"I've been here five months," one woman shouted in Arabic. "I don't belong to the resistance. I have children at home."
Outside the prison, located on the western edge of Baghdad, about 2,000 Iraqis demonstrated to protest U.S. treatment of prisoners there.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice chose the al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera and Lebanese television networks Tuesday to express her sorrow.
"The American president is reacting because no American wants to be associated with any dehumanizations now of the Iraqi people. And we are deeply sorry for what has happened to these people and what the families must be feeling. It's just not right. And we will get to the bottom of what happened," Rice told al-Arabiya, a regional network broadcast from Dubai.
"It's simply unacceptable that anyone would engage in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners," she said.