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Middle East: Bush's Comments On Prisoner Abuse Generally Fail To Impress In Iraq, Arab World

U.S. President George W. Bush granted interviews yesterday to two Arabic satellite networks in an effort to stem the fallout over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. Reactions in the Arab world to Bush's remarks has generally been negative, however.

Prague, 6 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Distrust between the U.S. and the Arab world ran deep, even before the latest controversy over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.

So it may not be surprising that U.S. President George W. Bush's comments yesterday during interviews with two Arabic satellite networks did little to convince viewers otherwise.

In separate interviews with correspondents from the United Arab Emirates-based Al-Arabiyah and U.S.-funded Al-Hurra, Bush condemned the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners and said justice will be done.

"Initial reactions on the street and in the Arab media do not indicate that the content of the communication will have a telling impact on the way people think and feel about American policy vis-a-vis the Middle East."
"This was horrible, but we're dealing with it in a way that will bring confidence to not only our citizens, which is very important, but confidence to people of the world that this situation will be rectified and justice will be done," he said.

Bush also stressed that the actions of a few U.S. soldiers do not reflect the nature of the men and women who serve in the U.S. Army. He said mistakes are made in a democracy, but that the truth will be discovered.

For those who had the opportunity to see them, however, Bush's remarks appear to have done little to reduce the anger felt in Iraq and the Arab world.

In an interview in Baghdad with Reuters, an Iraqi man, Wahad Mustafa al-Jaf, said Bush's words are not enough: "[Bush] did not apologize to the Iraqi people. He should come to Iraq to apologize to the families of the victims and to say sorry or to give them compensation."

While Bush did not apologize, White House spokesman Scott McClellan later said that the president was "sorry for what occurred and the pain that it has caused."

Others agree that Bush did little to reduce Arab anger and resentment.

A spokesman for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television channel, Jihad Ballout, tells RFE/RL that Bush's remarks are unlikely to have a positive impact on Arab attitudes towards the U.S. because he did not touch on the most painful issues of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"Certainly, initial reactions on the street and in the Arab media do not indicate that the content of the communication will have a telling impact on the way people think and feel about American policy vis-a-vis the Middle East," he said.

He says that, in Arab minds, U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policies in the Palestinian territories is just as -- if not more -- important than the prisoner-abuse scandal.

Hiwa Usman is a Kurdish journalist working with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He spoke to RFE/RL from the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniyah. Usman says Iraqi Kurds welcomed Bush's comments. He says Kurds are convinced that the prisoner abuses occurred as a result of mismanagement by the Coalition Provisional Authority and do not reflect U.S. policy or values.

He says Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair remain popular in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the scandal: "[Bush] is extremely popular, and I would say he is almost more popular than the Kurdish leaders. You go to any shop, or most every other shop, in Sulaymaniyah [and there is] a photo of George Bush and also of Tony Blair. They see them as the heroes of liberation for them. They know that this war would not have happened -- Saddam would not have gone, disappeared -- had it not been for President Bush and for Prime Minister Blair."

Not all of Bush's intended audience was able to hear his remarks, however. Ballout notes that Al-Arabiyah did not immediately translate Bush's speech into Arabic.

Ballout said: "At least in Al-Arabiya, the first run of the interview was wholly in English, and this begs the question, if the appeal or the reaching out was to an Arab audience, why wouldn't it be simultaneously translated into Arabic?"

In addition, Bush chose not to speak to Al-Jazeera, the most widely watched satellite network in the Arab world, and one which has been very critical of U.S. policy in Iraq and in the wider Middle East.

In Iraq itself, meanwhile, some failed to watch the U.S. president's interviews for more mundane reasons.

Ahmad, a Sunni Arab living in the prestigious Adhamiyah area of Baghdad, told RFE/RL he didn't hear Bush's remarks because there was no electricity at his house yesterday.

"I did not hear the speech because, you know, there was some electricity failure. In these last two weeks, there are a lot of electricity failures. I'd like to hear the speech, but I couldn't. Therefore, from yesterday until now, I couldn't meet anyone who [had] a complete idea about it," he said.

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