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Friday, May 7

Rumsfeld takes responsibility for abuse of Iraqi prisoners

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took responsibility Friday for the exploding scandal over the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Army guards, but couldn't say with certainty whether the abuse was barbaric behavior by a few soldiers or used in interrogations.

Half a dozen ongoing military investigations will determine that, some within several weeks, Rumsfeld and his top uniformed commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the first in a series of congressional hearings on the scandal.

``These events occurred on my watch,`` said a stoic Rumsfeld, who also appeared before the House Armed Services Committee Friday. ``I am accountable and I take full responsibility.''

Rumsfeld, facing a chorus of calls for his resignation from Democrats, has become the lightning rod in a global hurricane of anger and revulsion over the Army's treatment of Iraqis held at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Nowhere is the damage more potentially dangerous than in Iraq where U.S. forces are dying daily. U.S. troops are trying to quell a stubborn insurgency so civil authorities there can transfer sovereignty back to the Iraqis on June 30 as President Bush has repeatedly vowed to do.

The story broke when photographs shot by U.S. Army soldiers at the prison showing naked Iraqis being tortured aired on CBS. A 53-page Army report issued in March by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba corroborated the photos and documented multiple incidents of abuse between October and December.

Perhaps the most ominous moment of Friday's electric hearings came when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned ``the worst is yet to come,'' nodding at Rumsfeld.

``There are a lot of photos and videos that exist,'' Rumsfeld acknowledged.

The mostly unanswered questions asked repeatedly of Rumsfeld and his top brass include:

- Was the abuse malevolent, aberrant behavior by a small group of poorly supervised soldiers, or a sanctioned practice to loosen up prisoners for interrogation?

- If it was sanctioned, who authorized it - military commanders or the more than two dozen private contractors hired to work at the jail as interrogators and interpreters?

``Who was in charge of interrogations? Did they have authority over the guards?'' asked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., getting only vague answers about shifting authority.

- Why weren't Congress and the president informed of the photos long before CBS was preparing to broadcast them? Both Congress and the White House knew an investigation was under way, as early as January.

Riding on those answers are the career of a mercurial bureaucrat-warrior, the re-election of a president smarting from his lowest poll numbers to date, and possibly the success or failure of an already shaky occupation in Iraq.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the body of evidence - the Taguba report and the photographs - together were strong indications the torture was more than just barbaric behavior.

Some of the photographs plainly show soldiers going about their duties while prisoners are being tortured. The Taguba report cites multiple incidents of beating, forcibly arranging naked prisoners into sexual positions, forcing male detainees to masturbate while being videotaped and a guard having sex with a female detainee.

``There is direct evidence these actions were encouraged, `` Levin said. ``You have people in the pictures ... very casually standing by. The pictures themselves show the methodical nature of this activity.''

``The fact that these horrible abuses took place does reflect on the chain of command,'' said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Republicans frequently noted that so far only six soldiers have been charged with conspiracy, dereliction of duty, cruelty, maltreatment and indecent acts. They warned colleagues against reaching conclusions before the investigations have been completed.

``This is a rare, extremely rare chapter in military history,'' said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va.

As expected, the hearings also became a platform for debate over the Bush administration's handling of the campaign in Iraq, where U.S. troop deaths recently spiked. More than 730 Americans have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.

Bush and Rumsfeld have come under fire for their handling of prisoners in the war on terror, especially the controversial decision to detain prisoners overseas and under conditions where they are not governed by the Geneva Convention prisoner of war conduct code.

``How do we know there isn't a broader problem here?'' asked Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

The Senate hearings were briefly interrupted by seven or eight demonstrators shouting ``Fire Rumsfeld.''

Lawmakers asked Rumsfeld what he thought about possible resignation. On Thursday, Bush publicly announced his support for Rumsfeld and said he would stay in the Cabinet.

``If I felt I could not be effective, I'd resign in a minute,'' Rumsfeld said Friday. ``I would not resign simply because people want to make a political issue of it.''

Sixty-nine percent of respondents in a ABC-Washington Post poll released Friday say Rumsfeld should stay in office.

House Democrats have called for an independent congressional probe of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Contributing: Jon Frandsen, GNS.