WASHINGTON - President Bush says Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will stay in his post despite the abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel, but Democrats are clamoring for his resignation and key Senate Republicans want to hear from the man himself.
"At this point in time I do not have any loss of confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld," Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday as a new cache of photographs surfaced and Bush offered an outright apology to the prisoners and their families half a world away.
"We need to get all the facts. We need everybody to just take a deep breath and get all the facts," added Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the same panel and himself a former prisoner of war.
Other Republicans expressed concern that military officials knew in January about the abusive and sexually humiliating treatment of prisoners, but did not inform Congress about it or about a subsequent investigative report prepared by a Pentagon official.
For his part, Rumsfeld stayed out of public view Thursday and spent part of his time looking ahead to Friday's pair of command congressional appearances. "Get it all out. Be open," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said he urged the defense secretary in a meeting at the Pentagon.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, meanwhile, said the Justice Department stood ready to prosecute any civilians or former military personnel suspected of criminal conduct in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Speaking with reporters, Ashcroft would not confirm whether the Defense Department or CIA had formally referred any individual cases to federal prosecutors for potential charges. But he said there was ample jurisdiction to move against civilian contractors and others, including laws that forbid torture.
"We will follow evidence and act in accordance with evidence," Ashcroft said. "We will take action where appropriate."
The CIA inspector general is investigating three prisoner deaths that may have involved its officers or contract personnel, intelligence officials have said.
Six months before the national election and dogged by persistent violence and rising U.S. casualties in Iraq, Bush was unflinching Thursday in his defense of Rumsfeld.
He "is a really good secretary of defense. Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars. He's an important part of my Cabinet and he'll stay in my Cabinet," the president said during a Rose Garden appearance with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
At the same time, Bush confirmed for reporters that he had expressed his unhappiness with his defense secretary privately earlier in the week. He said he told him that "I should have known about the pictures and the report" done by the Pentagon before they turned up in news reports.
With Bush and lawmakers concerned about the impact of the controversy on America's image around the globe, graphic new photographs surfaced Thursday that served only to compound their worries. One showed a naked prisoner handcuffed to a bed with women's underwear over his head.
In his Rose Garden appearance with Abdullah, Bush shed his customary reluctance to apologize or acknowledge mistakes. "I told him (Abdullah) I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families," the president said. "I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."
Bush conceded unprompted that America's reputation had been damaged. "It's a stain on our country's honor and our country's reputation. I fully understand that. And that's why it's important that justice be done," he said.
Democrats, whose relations with Rumsfeld have long been strained, said more than that was required.
Sen. John Kerry, battling Bush for the White House, pushed for Rumsfeld's ouster.
"It's the way it was handled," Kerry said on a campaign stop in California. "The lack of information to the Congress, the lack of information to the country, not managing it, not dealing with it, recognizing it as an issue."
"The Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld oversees has become an island of unaccountability, ignoring the Geneva Conventions, our allies and common sense," added House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said Congress should impeach Rumsfeld if he declined to resign and Bush refused to fire him.
With both houses of Congress under Republican control, impeachment wasn't on the agenda, and some Republicans hastened to accuse Democrats of playing politics with the issue.
"They want to win the White House more than they win the war (on terror) and our enemies know it," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
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