Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison Thursday, flying into the eye of the storm over Americans torturing prisoners that has shredded Washington's credibility in Iraq.
Hours after U.S. lawmakers viewed "sadistic" new photographs of abuse, Rumsfeld arrived at what was Saddam Hussein's most notorious prison, where seven U.S. military police reservists are charged with sexually and physically tormenting detainees.
Four hours into the announced trip to Baghdad, he had already met Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander in Iraq, and Major General Geoffrey Miller, the new prisons head there.
His trip looked like a robust answer to critics who say Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the Iraq war, should resign, six months before President Bush seeks re-election.
As international anger at U.S. conduct in Iraq -- and at its Guantanamo Bay prison on Cuba -- mounts, General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who visited with Rumsfeld, said: "We absolutely have the high moral ground."
Once notorious as Saddam Hussein's torture chamber, Abu Ghraib has become a symbol of the United States' failure to win over many Iraqis despite ridding them of Saddam a year ago. With just seven weeks to go until Washington hands sovereignty back to an Iraqi government, that is a serious problem for Rumsfeld.
He denied on the secret, 15-hour flight from Washington that the Pentagon was trying to cover up the scandal, which emerged when proceedings were opened in January against seven military police, who have now been charged, but exploded into a global issue with the release of soldiers' photographs two weeks ago.
"If anybody thinks that I'm (in Iraq) to throw water on a fire, they're wrong," Rumsfeld told reporters on board. "We care about the detainees being treated right. We care about soldiers behaving right. We care about command systems working."
Other U.S. defense officials said the sudden trip by Rumsfeld and Myers was triggered by the photographs.
Edward Kennedy, a Senator from the opposition Democrats, said the visit was months overdue: "This is just a continuation of disaster after disaster in terms of Iraq policy.
"We are the most hated nation in the world as a result of this disastrous policy in the prisons," he told NBC television.
Efforts by the Bush administration to contain the damage to the seven soldiers charged have been buffeted by reports from the Red Cross and other groups saying that Washington was warned about systematic and widespread torture many months ago.
A Pentagon official with Rumsfeld revealed the Red Cross has issued a new report criticising the detention of hundreds of suspects, mainly from Afghanistan, at Guantanamo Bay.
Major General Miller was brought in from Guantanamo a few weeks ago to restore order to the U.S. prisons in Iraq.
The New York Times, citing counterterrorism officials, said CIA interrogation methods used to extract information from al Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo are so severe the FBI has told its agents to stay away from the sessions.
The United States makes a distinction between detainees held under the Geneva Convention, such as those in Iraq, and what Washington calls "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo.
Not only are Arabs dismayed at evidence that the troops who overthrew Saddam's dictatorship were inflicting torments themselves on thousands of Iraqis but U.S. allies, many of whom opposed the war, are also becoming more vocal in criticism.
"It all gives the impression of a total lack of direction," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told Le Monde newspaper in unusually tough comments about Iraq under U.S. occupation.
Prisoner abuses and persistent violence showed the country and region were spinning out of control, Barnier said.
FIGHTING IN SOUTH
In the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, where U.S. troops are facing an uprising by a Shi'ite Muslim militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, there was renewed fighting.
Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters stormed the main police station in Najaf overnight and emptied the weapons store, police said, before they were driven off by U.S. tanks.
Officials at the main city hospital said two dead bodies and six wounded people had been brought in.
In nearby Kerbala, gunfire echoed from narrow streets just a few hundred meters (yards) from the revered Imam Hussein mosque in early afternoon. Smoke rose nearby, witnesses said.
A Reuters cameraman said militiamen attacked a U.S. Abrams tank with rocket-propelled grenades and damaged it. There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. commanders. The clashes followed a lull in fighting for several hours.
U.S. forces and the Mehdi Army, have skirmished repeatedly in recent days in several Shi'ite cities across southern Iraq.
Members of the U.S. Congress saw new images of violence and sexual humiliation from Abu Ghraib in a closed viewing.
Lawmakers said images showed inmates apparently being coerced to commit sodomy, wounds possibly from dog bites, a number of dead bodies, and examples of "sadistic torture."
Some top Republicans urged them to be kept under wraps, saying they could endanger U.S. forces overseas. American civilian Nick Berg was beheaded, apparently by an al Qaeda group in Iraq, this month in what they said was a reprisal for abuses.
"When you think of the sadism, the violence, the sexual humiliation, after a while you just turn away," Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat, said. "I still cannot believe that this happened without the knowledge of those at higher levels."