Bush administration envoy Karen Hughes visited Indonesia on Friday as part of her campaign to repair U.S. standing with the world's Muslims and defended the invasion of Iraq by telling skeptical students that deposed president Saddam Hussein had gassed hundreds of thousands of his own people.
Her remark was an impassioned answer to familiar criticisms of U.S. policy raised by her audience at one of Indonesia's leading Islamic universities. But it was also wrong.
State Department officials later acknowledged that Hughes, tapped by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to set the record straight on U.S. policies in the Muslim world, had misreported history.
Although at least 300,000 Iraqis are reported to have died during Hussein's 24 years in office, his government's use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds cost the lives of only a small proportion, most notoriously an estimated 5,000 people who died in a 1988 military campaign in the northern town of Halabja.
Hughes, who is undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, made her remarks at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, south of Jakarta, one of several stops during her three-day visit to the world's most populous Muslim country. The students at the prestigious institution confronted her with emotional objections about the U.S. rationale for war in Iraq, similar to those she faced last month in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
"The consensus of the world intelligence community was that Saddam was a very dangerous threat," she said. "After all, he used weapons of mass destruction against his own people. He had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people using poison gas."
Hours later, Hughes was asked twice for the basis for her numbers during a meeting with journalists from foreign news organizations.
"It's something that our U.S. government has said a number of times in the past. It's information that was used very widely after his attack on the Kurds. I believe it was close to 300,000," Hughes said when questioned the first time. She added, "That's something I said every day in the course of the campaign. That's information that we talked about a great deal in America."
When asked again several minutes later, she said, "I think it was almost 300,000. It's my recollection. They were put in mass graves."
By late in the day, Hughes's aide, Gordon D. Johndroe, offered a correction.
"She was referring to Saddam Hussein having killed hundreds of thousands of people. The gassing part of that was a fraction," said Johndroe, director of strategic communications and planning in the State Department's public affairs bureau. "She was combining two numbers and two situations. She wasn't trying to rewrite the story or make a new claim."
Though a longtime political adviser and confidante of Bush, Hughes is a relative newcomer to international affairs. She was appointed this year to energize the State Department's public affairs efforts and burnish the U.S. image, which has been badly tarnished in the Muslim world by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.
The students Friday repeatedly challenged her on all three fronts. But Iraq -- and, in particular, unproven U.S. claims about Iraq stockpiling weapons of mass destruction -- drew the most ire.
Hughes later told reporters she recognized that those issues resonate in Muslim countries, especially with the young.
"I'm not questioning at all that the views are deeply held. I understand they're deeply held," she said. "In the case of Iraq, I've both heard people around the world express concern. I've also been in the room and watched as our policymakers made the decision that they felt as a matter of very deep conviction was exactly the right thing that we needed to do."
Hughes was scheduled to leave Jakarta on Saturday for the Indonesian province of Aceh, devastated in the massive tsunami late last year, before visiting Malaysia, another predominantly Muslim country.