Arabs unmoved by Bush interviews

US president George Bush told a sceptical Arab world that the actions of soldiers who mistreated Iraqi prisoners “don’t represent America” and pledged that “justice will be served”.

But the president stopped short of apologising in his damage-limitation interviews with two Arab TV stations yesterday.

“This is a serious matter, a matter that reflects badly on our country,” Bush conceded in his interview with Al-Arabiya, a popular Dubai-based station. But he added: “This is a free country. We do not tolerate this kind of abuses.”

Bush gave interviews hoping to limit the fallout from the prisoner-abuse scandal that has torn at the already weakened US image in the region. But his message was a hard sell, and many watching said Bush’s words did little to change their opinions.

“Bush had a whole year to fulfil his promises regarding bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq,” said Mouwaddaq Fadhil, a 55-year-old taxi driver in Baghdad. “But he failed, and now we are hearing the same promises about a bright future for Iraq.”

Al-Arabiya, popular throughout the Arab world, first aired most of the interview, unedited, in English with no subtitles. Most Arabs do not speak English. Station officials said they rushed the raw interview on to air and would broadcast a dubbed version later.

An hour later, it aired the full interview dubbed into Arabic.

Bush also gave an interview to Al-Hurra, a US-government funded Arabic-language station largely seen as propaganda in the region. Al-Hurra broadcast the interview with an Arabic voiceover that was faithful to Bush’s comments.

The people of Iraq “must understand that what took place in that prison does not represent the America that I know,” Bush told Al-Hurra.

“The America I know is a compassionate country that believes in freedom. The America I know cares about every individual. The America I know has sent troops into Iraq to promote freedom, good honourable citizens that are helping Iraqis every day.”

Few people watch Al-Hurra, but the interview with Al-Arabiya was greeted by many with disgust.

“The apology will not change anything. It does not hold,” said Abdel Gawad Ahmed, a lawyer in Cairo watching the interview at his union headquarters.

“Is it an apology for the victims we see every day? Or for violating international conventions? Will this apology do me any good?”

Bush did not specifically apologise for the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. But, he said, “The actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people.”

In the interview with Al-Arabiya, Bush said: “The practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don’t represent America. They represent the actions of a few people.

“We will find the truth. We will fully investigate. The world will see the investigation and justice will be served.”

Raad Youssef, a 49-year-old Baghdad school teacher, was more welcoming of Bush’s comments, saying that under Saddam Hussein, torture and abuse were commonplace and no one ever admitted to nor apologised for such abuses.

“Bush’s attempt to repair the damage is a good thing in my opinion,” Youssef said.

Photographs first shown on the CBS News programme 60 Minutes II showed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib stripped naked and sexually humiliated by their guards. The photographs have drawn worldwide condemnation and outrage.

An investigation is broadening, with US military officials acknowledging they have court-martialled a soldier for the death of an Iraqi prisoner and are considering criminal prosecution against a CIA contract interrogator in another.

In all, the United States is investigating 14 prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, military officials said, as well as 10 abuse cases.

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