WASHINGTON — Bush administration officials struggled Wednesday to contain the growing outrage over the abuse of prisoners in Iraq.
The president took to the airwaves to try to convince a skeptical Arab world that the abuses were an anomaly. In an interview with Al Hurra, a US-government funded Arabic-language station, Mr. Bush said the actions of a few guards were "abhorrent" and unrepresentative of "the America I know."
Meanwhile, US military officials described the investigations into the affairs as broadening. They acknowledged that one soldier has already been court-martialed for the death of a prisoner, and that they're considering charges against a CIA interrogator in another. Another 20 deaths and assaults are under investigation, officials said.
Ultimately, the cumulative effect of the scandal could do more damage to US purposes in Iraq than the planned actions of an army of anti-American insurgents.
Overseas, the abuses make it easier for opponents of US actions to portray the White House as the moral equal of the Saddam Hussein regime. In the US, they may feed the impression among some that the Iraqi action is spiraling out of control.
As the investigation into US treatment of detainees widens, any new revelation will be seen in the context created by the horrifying pictures already beamed around the world. Things that might have escaped notice on their own may be judged part of a systemic failure.
"There is no reason why a lot of heads shouldn't roll here," says Pat Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The US faces a tough task in convincing the Arab world that the Abu Ghraib scandal was the work of a few criminals, says independent pollster John Zogby, who has done surveys in the Middle East.
For one thing, the visuals are too powerful. "This is the sort of thing that will be played over and over and over," he says.
Arabs distrust US purposes anyway, and may find the pictures to simply be confirmation of what they believed all along.
The nature of the abuses, which involved stripping prisoners in the presence of females, among other things, are also particularly insulting in many Middle Eastern cultures.
The conduct at Abu Ghraib might "come to symbolize US humiliation of an Arab country ... that touches a raw nerve for a lot of people in that part of the world," says Jim Walsh, an international security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
In the US itself, public opinion about the Iraq war has generally hardened. Thus the scandal may not affect overall poll numbers much. But heretofore many who oppose the war have also believed that the US is stuck, that leaving would do more harm than good. This might now change somewhat, says Mr. Zogby.
"This is the sort of thing that can tip that over into the column of 'we're not doing any good over there,' " he says.
In Washington, defense officials struggled to explain why it took so long for a report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba on the abuses to percolate upward through the chain of command.
The report was completed in March, yet on Sunday the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said that he had not yet read the full paper. On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he had reviewed a summary of the report.
Secretary Rumsfeld noted that an investigation into Abu Ghraib's problems began quickly after they were brought to the Pentagon's attention in January. Given the sensitivity of the investigation, each layer of military bureaucracy had to review it carefully as it passed upward, Rumsfeld said.
"These things take time," he said at a press conference.
A mixed-up chain of command, with military intelligence, private contractors, and military policy all twined together, is part of the reason the abuses were allowed to occur, say some experts.
It is also possible that too many of the US personnel at Abu Ghraib were part-timers. A reserve military policy brigade, commanded by a reserve general, was working with a reserve military intelligence unit.
"No matter what you say about reservists, they are amateurs until they have been on active duty for a year or so," says Mr.Lang.
Lang also pointed to a larger issue: the way US detainees have been treated throughout the war on terror.
At the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Taliban fighters continue to be held incommunicado, without regard for Geneva Convention protections. "All it takes is for somebody to day, these people are evil, really bad, so you can treat them [any way you want]," says Lang.