Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered military commanders to come up with clear rules for how U.S. troops around the world should respond if they witness mistreatment of detainees by other forces outside the United States, a senior defense official said yesterday.
The move follows evident confusion last week between Rumsfeld and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over what rules currently apply in Iraq. Rumsfeld had stated at a Pentagon news conference that U.S. forces were obligated simply to report mistreatment of Iraqis by Iraqi forces, only to be contradicted by Pace, who insisted U.S. forces were further required to try to stop the abuse.
The exchange prompted Rumsfeld to seek a more detailed explanation of the rules in Iraq, according to an aide, and it appears Pace may have overstated the policy. An initial review by senior Pentagon officials indicated that the rules, while requiring troops to take action if they witness Iraqi mistreatment, do not seem to make clear how far U.S. troops should go.
In any case, Rumsfeld wants the policy clarified for Iraq and elsewhere. He has asked Pace to come up with a process for defining what rules should apply to U.S. forces abroad, recognizing that U.S. military requirements may vary by country, depending on local laws and other considerations of sovereignty.
"The secretary wants to be sure that whatever policy we have can be clearly understood by individual units in any given country," said Lawrence T. Di Rita, the Pentagon's chief spokesman.
The issue has taken on particular urgency in Iraq following news reports depicting a campaign of torture and murder against Sunnis by Shiite militia who have infiltrated the U.S.-trained government police forces. Two weeks ago, U.S. troops raided a clandestine Baghdad prison run by the Interior Ministry, where about 170 men were found, most of them Sunni and most of them starved or tortured.
Speaking publicly yesterday, Rumsfeld himself raised the issue of what rules should apply to U.S. forces in such situations.
"It sounds like a simple thing -- obviously you should stop it," he said at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. But he quickly added that deciding how to do so can get complicated, particularly if oral attempts do not stop the abuse and use of force must be considered.
Rumsfeld rattled off a list of questions, including: What level of force should be used? Should troops out of uniform be held to the same rules as those in uniform? And how should the rules differ among countries?
"So there are all these gradations in there that need to be thought through," he said.
The main purpose of Rumsfeld's appearance at the school was to talk about the situation in Iraq, part of a series of speeches by the senior administration officials aimed at promoting the U.S. strategy outlined by President Bush last week and reversing an erosion of public support.
Much of Rumsfeld's speech assailed U.S. news coverage of Iraq, accusing news organizations of focusing on negative developments and giving short shrift to signs of progress. Such criticism has become a frequent complaint among senior administration officials and Republican lawmakers trying to make the case that the situation in Iraq is often better than depicted.
"We've arrived at a strange time in this country where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press, and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact," he told the audience filled largely with school faculty and students.
Citing polls by the Pew Research Center, Rumsfeld suggested the discontent was centered among what he described as the country's "elites." Asked about the likelihood of democracy taking hold in Iraq, Rumsfeld said, 63 percent of journalists polled and 71 percent of those in the foreign affairs establishment and in universities and think tanks predicted the effort would fail. By contrast, 64 percent of U.S. military personnel surveyed and 56 percent of the U.S. public were optimistic.
"And the Iraqi people are optimistic," Rumsfeld said, referring to other opinion polls and a rise in tips that Iraqis are providing U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Rumsfeld said Iraqis are more upbeat about their country because they recall how much worse conditions were under ousted president Saddam Hussein, whereas journalists have a narrower view constrained by concerns about their own safety. Although noting that assassinations, hostage-taking and other violence persist, Rumsfeld listed offsetting "positive developments," including an evolving political process, signs of division in insurgent ranks and more active support for democracy in Iraq from other countries in the region.
"To be responsible, one needs to stop defining success in Iraq as the absence of terrorist attacks," he said.
The Pentagon is having its own troubles at the moment with how some U.S. troops and private contractors in Iraq have handled news reports that they have written. The U.S. military command in Baghdad acknowledged last week that it had paid Iraqi newspapers to publish pro-American articles written by a U.S. task force. Commanders are investigating whether U.S. rules requiring disclosure of the source of such articles were violated.