WASHINGTON The reported abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers threatens to undermine part of President Bush's rationale for unseating Saddam Hussein: that the United States had ended a regime that was torturing and abusing Iraqis.
The disclosures undermine American claims to a moral high ground as the United States tries to put down a growing insurgency and gain international support in Iraq.
''Saddam Hussein encouraged and tolerated this kind of behavior the U.S. does not,'' Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan said Monday, reporting that the president had called Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to make sure any guilty soldiers are punished.
Even so, the allegation of mistreatment of prisoners ''makes the U.S. and coalition forces a legitimate enemy in the eyes of more Arabs than was the case before,'' said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Middle East security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
''Anything short of a court-martial of general officers will be seen throughout the region as a cover-up.''
The latest setback to U.S. efforts in Iraq comes as the administration passes an embarrassing landmark the first anniversary of Bush's ''mission accomplished'' speech and just two months before the United States is to turn over civilian authority to a new Iraqi interim government.
It also comes as the United States attempts to encourage more international participation in establishing a stable Iraq, particularly by Arab nations, and as the Justice Department gathers evidence for a war crimes case against Saddam and other senior members of his government.
The worldwide circulation of photos showing U.S. soldiers humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners at the U.S. Army-run Abu Ghraib prison has further stoked international disapproval of the U.S. and British occupation.
''This has been a very difficult period. I don't think it is too late for us to get this right, but I don't think we have a lot of time to turn this around,'' said Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser.
Thus far, U.S. officials have condemned the prisoner treatment as an aberration. Bush expressed ''deep disgust.'' Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on Monday that U.S. soldiers ''are there to help, not to hurt.''
''The actions of a few, I trust, will not overwhelm the goodness that comes from so many of our soldiers,'' Powell said.
More U.S. soldiers were being reprimanded, a senior U.S. military official said Monday in Baghdad. Six U.S. military police were already facing charges.
The allegations could reinforce to the world an image of mistreatment of detainees following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, including the continued holding of 600 on a U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
''This just reconfirms an image that we are not treating prisoners the way that civilized people should,'' said Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. ''We need a full court press by the administration to demonstrate that this is unacceptable behavior, that if it happened people will be punished, that if it is taking place that it will stop.''
Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights group, alleged a monthslong ''pattern of torture'' of Iraqi prisoners by coalition troops, and called for an independent investigation. A leading association of Iraqi Sunni Muslim clerics called for an international investigation. And Iraq's interior minister demanded an Iraqi role in the running of all prisons.
Public opinion about Iraq has been changing in the United States.
Recent polls show the country is now close to evenly divided between those who think the administration made the right decision to go to war in Iraq and those who think the war was a mistake. In December, two-thirds said the administration made the right decision.
Tom Raum has national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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