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White House plays down new Quran reports
CRAWFORD, Texas - A Pentagon report detailing incidents in which U.S. guards at Guantanamo Bay prison desecrated the Quran is creating another public relations challenge for US President Bush.
The hand of honorary Sheik Amjad Abu Sadio, 13, is seen on the Quran as he reads prior to delivering the traditional Friday speech during prayers at the Al Imam Shafay Mosque in the Jebaliya Refugee Camp, in the northern Gaza Strip, Friday, June 3, 2005. Hundreds of Muslim worshippers flocked to a mosque in one of Gaza's largest refugee camps on Friday to get a glimpse of Gaza's newest star,a 13-year-old boy who has memorized much of the Quran. [AP]
Two weeks ago, the White House was thrown on the defensive by a now-retracted Newsweek report alleging that U.S. interrogators at the detention center for alleged terrorists in Cuba had flushed a Quran down a toilet.
The story stirred worldwide controversy and the Bush administration blamed it for deadly demonstrations in Afghanistan. Saying America's image abroad had suffered irreparable damage, the White House responded with a verbal offensive against the media.
On Saturday, a day after the Pentagon described a series of cases of U.S. personnel mishandling the Quran, the White House downplayed the issue.
"It is unfortunate that some have chosen to take out of context a few isolated incidents by a few individuals," presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement.
Joe Lockhart, former press secretary for President Clinton, said that when a news organization — such as Newsweek — makes a factual mistake, White House officials are tempted to try to discredit the entire story.
"I think on this issue, they fell into a trap," Lockhart said. "They saw a way to push back on a damaging story by making it look like it was just out-of-control journalists, and now they've had to admit that it has happened."
McClellan's statements after the Newsweek report left an impression that no desecration at all had occurred at Guantanamo, Lockhart said.
"While the news organization got an example wrong, they got the practice right," he said. "I think certainly the public is within their right, in this case, to believe they were misled."
The Pentagon confirmed Friday evening — after the networks' evening news shows had aired — that a U.S. soldier had deliberately kicked a prisoner's holy book. The report also said prison guards had thrown water balloons in a cell block, causing an unspecified number of Qurans to get wet; a guard's urine had splashed on a detainee and his Quran; an interrogator had stepped on a Quran during an interrogation; and a two-word obscenity had been written in English on the inside cover of a Quran.
Pentagon officials said the problems were relatively minor and U.S. commanders have gone to great lengths to enable detainees to practice their religion.
White House officials noted that the investigation last month, by Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, the commander of the detention center, also found 15 cases of detainees mishandling their own Qurans.
"These included using a Quran as a pillow, ripping pages out of the Quran, attempting to flush a Quran down the toilet and urinating on the Quran," Hood's report said. It offered no possible explanation for the detainees' actions.
McClellan declined to answer questions about whether the White House issued misleading statements, whether the credibility of the Bush administration had been tarnished or whether the Pentagon report would hamper Bush's efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East.
On her goodwill trip to the Middle East last month, first lady Laura Bush said Newsweek should not be solely blamed for the deadly protests that followed its report.
"In the United States if there's a terrible report, people don't riot and kill other people," she said. "And you can't excuse what they did because of the mistake — you know, you can't blame it all on Newsweek."
"We've had terrible happenings that have really, really hurt our image of the United States," she said. "And people in the United States are sick about it."