Bush says sorry as calls grow for Rumsfeld to quit

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The Independent Online

George Bush's White House was yesterday facing its greatest crisis yet, with fresh demands for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, tumbling presidential poll ratings and the publication of shocking new pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib jail.

George Bush's White House was yesterday facing its greatest crisis yet, with fresh demands for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, tumbling presidential poll ratings and the publication of shocking new pictures of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib jail.

In an attempt to repair America's, and his own, battered image, Mr Bush issued the formal apology for the prisoner abuse he failed to provide during his Arab television interview on Wednesday. After a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House yesterday, Mr Bush told reporters: "I told his majesty I'm sorry for the humiliation suffered by the prisoners and by their families."

Mr Bush also publicly backed the besieged Mr Rumsfeld, calling him a "really good Secretary of Defence" and "an important part of the cabinet" who "will stay in my cabinet". But for the first time since Mr Bush took office, the administration's vaunted façade of unity was in pieces amid the controversy over Mr Rumsfeld and the unhappiness of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, which was revealed in a magazine article.

On Wednesday evening, senior Bush aides had let it be known that the President had privately scolded Mr Rumsfeld for failing to keep the White House abreast of the scandal. This suggestion was disputed by Pentagon officials.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post yesterday ran a previously unpublished photograph on its front page of Lynndie England, the reservist private who had already been seen in earlier pictures from Abu Ghraib, holding a leash tied around the neck of a naked prisoner sprawled on the floor.

There is every sign that the Defence Secretary intends to tough it out. Aides cancelled a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania yesterday so he could prepare his testimony for an emergency hearing today of the Senate Armed Services committee, where Republicans are hardly any less angry than Democrats over the affair.

One task will be to explain to members of Congress why he did not inform them of the internal Pentagon report on the abuse during a visit to Capitol Hill last week, on the very day the CBS network had shown the pictures of the abuse that was detailed in the report.

Even after the storm broke, furious senators had to turn to the internet to read the now infamous report by Maj-Gen Antonio Taguba before the Pentagon sent them copies. Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said: "We didn't have a clue." The Pentagon's behaviour was "entirely unacceptable" and "a complete breakdown in communication," he said.

Mr Rumsfeld is also struggling to explain why, even as late as this weekend when the uproar was in full cry, he had not properly read the 53-page report. General Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs and the country's senior uniformed official, is also being heavily criticised for his failure to read the explosive document in full until very late in the day.

Democratic critics argue that, as the civilian ultimately in charge of the US armed forces, Mr Rumsfeld must take responsibility. By dispensing with the Geneva Conventions for detainees in the "war on terror" and by letting unaccountable private contractors into what was once the preserve of the military, he had helped create an "anything goes" climate in the prison and interrogation process, Democrats say.

John Kerry, Mr Bush's Democratic challenger for the White House, and Tom Harkin, a Democratic member of the Senate panel, have publicly demanded that Mr Rumsfeld either resign or be sacked. So has Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, who accuses the Defence Secretary of "a cover-up from the start on this issue".

But two factors argue against his departure. One is the sheer difficulty of changing the Pentagon high command at so fraught a moment on the ground in Iraq, when 60 per cent of Americans, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, believes the US has lost control in Iraq.

Another is that to get rid of Mr Rumsfeld would be an admission by Mr Bush that he had made a massive mistake in his Iraq strategy, and no president has been more reluctant than this one to concede error.

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