WASHINGTON – American abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib (search) were terrible, but they are not crimes on par with beheadings and other acts carried out by terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) said Friday.
Rumsfeld, speaking at the National Press Club, said the military is correcting the problems raised by the prison events.
"Has it been harmful to our country? Yes. Is it something that has to be corrected? Yes," he said. "Does it rank up there with chopping off someone's head off on television? It doesn't. It doesn't. Was it done as a matter of policy? No."
Pentagon investigations in recent months have said there have been some 300 allegations of prisoners killed, raped, beaten and subjected to other mistreatment at military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay (search) since the start of the war on terror. A few of those cases amounted to torture, a senior Army investigator has said.
Rumsfeld rattled of a list of statistics aimed at showing the military is addressing the problem. He said there are 11 separate investigations into prisoner abuse, eight of which are completed. Investigators have recommended 45 people face court-martial, and a few have already been prosecuted. Twenty-three people were discharged from the military in connection with the scandal.
Shortly before Rumsfeld spoke, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts sharply criticized Rumsfeld and the Bush administration in a Senate floor speech, calling the abuses at Abu Ghraib "just one part of a much larger failure for which our soldiers have been paying a high price since day one."
He quoted from a Pentagon prison abuse investigation that laid part of the blame on too few troops, ill-trained and ill-equipped for the prison and stabilization missions. It said the Pentagon wrongly predicted that postwar Iraq would be"a relatively non-hostile environment" rather than the increasingly violent one that has developed during the occupation.
"Because of the Bush administration's arrogant ideological incompetence and its bizarre 'mission accomplished' mentality, our troops and our intelligence officers ... had neither the resources nor the guidance needed to deal with the worsening conditions that steadily began to overwhelm them and continue to do so," Kennedy said.
Another Pentagon-ordered probe found "commanding officers and their staffs at various levels failed in their duties and that such failure contributed directly or indirectly to detainee abuse."
A spokesman for the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry, Mark Kitchens, said Rumsfeld's comments show him to be a "secretary of defense who continues to evade and deny responsibility for setting the leadership climate for the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib."
The comments by Kennedy and the Kerry campaign came a day after the latest in a series of Capitol Hill hearings on the military's abuse of prisoners.
Also Friday, Rumsfeld said Iraqi cities like Fallujah, which are not under control of the U.S.-backed interim government and serve as havens for anti-U.S. fighters, would be brought into the fold, either peacefully or by force.
"We know what will take place in Fallujah. And that is that it will be restored as something under the control of the Iraqi government eventually. What we don't know is whether it will be done peacefully or by force. But one way or another, it will happen," he said.
A day earlier, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, had urged Rumsfeld to develop a strategy "to force the insurgents from their dens" and not allow them sanctuary in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi.
"Allowing the enemy to establish sanctuaries didn't work 35 years ago in Vietnam, and it doesn't work today in Iraq," Skelton wrote in a letter to Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld, meanwhile, described another restive city, Najaf, as "taken back peacefully" due to an overwhelming show of force that persuaded rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to tell his fighters to disband. That followed widespread fighting involving al-Sadr's militia, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, and American soldiers and Marines. Still, the fighting ceased before U.S.-backed Iraqi troops went forward with plans to retake holy Shiite mosques in the city by force.
He declined to say if Iraqi elections would take place as planned in January, but predicted more violence would precede them. "Without a doubt in my mind," he said, insurgents will target "people who are running for office, Iraqi people who are engaged in that process."
Rumsfeld also predicted terrorists will time attacks to affect coalition countries' elections. Terrorist strikes on commuter trains in Madrid are credited with swinging the vote in Spain to a party that pledged — and did — pull its forces from Iraq.
"We're going to have to say to people, 'Don't be faint-hearted. Don't think you can make a separate peace. Don't think you can make a private deal as a person or a country. You can't. We're in it together,"' he said.