WASHINGTON – Karen Hughes (search), who has faced a rocky road since being named Washington's public relations chief, answered tough questions Friday about the invasion of Iraq, and wrongly stated that Saddam Hussein (search) gassed to death "hundreds of thousands" of his people.
Although the U.S. undersecretary for public diplomacy twice repeated the claim after being challenged by journalists, Gordon Johndroe, a State Department official traveling with Hughes, later called The Associated Press to say she misspoke.
Hughes, a longtime confidante of President Bush, was in the world's most populous Muslim nation to improve America's battered image after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
At a public debate with university students in Jakarta, she was repeatedly criticized over Washington's original stated rationale for the war in Iraq — Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction. No such arms were discovered.
"The consensus of the world intelligence community was that Saddam was a very dangerous threat," Hughes said.
"After all, he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people," she told about 100 students in a small auditorium. "He had murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people using poison gas."
At least 300,000 Iraqis were reportedly killed during Saddam's decades-long rule, but only about 5,000 are believed to have been gassed — in a 1988 attack in the Kurdish north.
Hughes' three-day trip to Indonesia came as the United States tried to limit damage from TV footage that purportedly shows U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan burning the corpses of two Taliban fighters.
The students did not ask her about the footage, but she later told reporters it was "abhorrent."
"The important thing that the world needs to know is that it is a violation of our policy," she said.
There has been little public reaction in Indonesia to the footage, but clerics in other Islamic nations expressed outrage and warned of a possible violent anti-American backlash.
Indonesia is a moderate Islamic country with significant Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. It has a long tradition of secularism, but in recent years has seen a series of terror attacks by militants linked to Al Qaeda, including blasts this month on Bali that killed 20 people.
Most of the 16 students selected to debate on stage with Hughes were women, and all wore brightly colored headscarves — some with tight jeans. They peppered her with questions on U.S. foreign policy, in particular the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Washington's support for Israel.
One student said the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States should be taken as a warning to America for interfering in the affairs of other countries. Another compared Bush to Hitler.
"Your policies are creating hostilities among Muslims," student Lailatul Qadar told Hughes. "It's Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and maybe it's going to be in Indonesia, I don't know. Who's the terrorist? Bush or us Muslims?"
Hughes, who has also faced tough questions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey since taking up her post two months ago, said she was not surprised by the hostility toward the United States.
"I understand that there are a lot of young people around the world, and a lot of people in our own country, who don't agree with what we did in Iraq," she told reporters. "We have to engage in the debate. That is what America is all about."
Hughes spoke just days after Saddam went on trial in a U.S.-backed court in Baghdad for alleged atrocities during his rule.
The first case against the former Iraqi dictator is narrowly focused on the massacre of 148 Shiite Muslims in Dujail (search), a town north of Baghdad, following a failed 1982 attempt on his life.
Iraqi authorities have indicated Saddam may later face trial on charges stemming from a 1988 poison gas attack on the Kurdish border town of Halabja, in which about 5,000 guerrillas and civilians died.
When asked to elaborate on claims that Saddam had poisoned hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to death, Hughes told reporters: "I know it was upward of 200,000."
"I think it was almost 300,000. (That) is my recollection," she said. "They were put in mass graves."
Hughes wrapped up her visit Saturday with a trip to the tsunami-wracked province of Aceh, where she got a firsthand look at recovery efforts. Aceh is one of the most intensely Islamic areas in Indonesia, but Hughes was not expected to face the same type of criticism during her four-hour stopover.
Many people in Aceh are grateful to the United States, which pledged $400 million in aid after the Dec. 26 tsunami killed 131,000 people in the province and caused widespread destruction.
Hughes, who arrived in Indonesia on Thursday, travels next to Malaysia.