Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told a regional economic forum here Saturday that "our hearts ache" over the abuses of Iraqi prison detainees, and he sought to persuade Palestinians to embrace Israel's latest peace initiative. The reaction to both overtures appeared to be tepid.
Speaking at a conference of the World Economic Forum, Powell expressed a "state of disbelief" about the disclosures of abuse by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq -- and he conceded that the United States is now widely criticized.
"We knew the region would look at these photos, would look at what had happened and say, 'Is this the America that we believed in? Is this the America whose value system we have looked at and admired for so many years?' '' he told the annual forum hosted by Jordan's King Abdullah.
"Our heads bow, our hearts ache, over what a small number of them did at that prison. There's no excuse for that," he said. His remarks were substantially different from the text distributed by his staff in advance.
Saying that the United States does not seek dominion over any nation or people, Powell appealed to a quiet and somber audience not to let events at Abu Ghraib divert attention from the larger stakes in Iraq. The United States is determined "to see through to the end" the creation of a new democratic nation, he said, which will be an example "for the region and other parties of the world. The stakes in Iraq are high -- for all of us."
But the United States came under fire from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, who said Iraq's future was being decided by only "a few countries" and without input from the more than 20 other Arab nations. "We regret the exclusion of our community to help in rebuilding Iraq," Moussa told members of the forum. "The Arab family asks to help in reconstruction. . . . Iraq is one of us and will remain as such."
Powell also called for support of the joint U.S.-European initiative on democratic reform in the region that is to be unveiled at three international summits next month.
"The United States knows full well that there can be no one 'cookie cutter' . . . no single template that will fit all the countries of the region," he said. "What we want to do is to embrace what you want to do, to work with you, create partnerships." Powell is scheduled to hold talks with Arab foreign ministers Sunday, before returning to Washington.
Powell urged Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to "seize the opportunity" presented by Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and abandon four Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
His meeting with Qureia was the first between senior U.S. and Palestinian officials in a year, and marks an attempt to re-energize a peace process that has made no significant progress since President Bush hosted a summit of Arab and Israeli leaders in Jordan last year. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to meet with Qureia on Monday in Berlin for further talks.
"With the announcement by the Israelis that they intend to leave Gaza and certain settlements in the West Bank, we have been given a new opportunity and we hope to seize that opportunity," Powell and Qureia said at a joint news conference after a 40-minute meeting at Amman's airport.
Powell said that Bush, in embracing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan, had "not stepped back one inch" from his 2002 promise to help create a Palestinian state as part of a permanent Middle East settlement. He warned, however, that "time is passing" and that all parties will need to redouble efforts to meet the deadline for a settlement based on a two-state solution. The peace plan known as the "road map," which Bush unveiled last year, set the goal of achieving a Palestinian state by the end of 2005.
Both U.S. and Palestinian officials said the talks were candid and friendly, but Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said in an interview that Powell offered "nothing new" and the Palestinian leadership was eager to see whether Rice offers tangible ideas or assistance during the Berlin talks. Rice was in Moscow over the weekend for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.