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Inside Politics

Partisanship emerges in abuse scandal

From Judy Woodruff
CNN

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawmakers appeared to bridge their political differences when the scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners erupted last week. But the partisan fault lines are re-emerging as Congress considers who is to blame for the abuse.

The reaction last week to the photos of U.S. soldiers posing with Iraqi prisoners in humiliating and sexually degrading positions was one of universal disgust. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans -- politicians of every persuasion -- came forward to denounce the acts.

The venerable chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia, personally pressed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to change his schedule and appear before Congress to testify about the scandal.

Some of the toughest questioning of Rumsfeld came from another Republican, Arizona's John McCain, who demanded that the Pentagon chief himself answer questions about rules governing the behavior of the soldiers.

But after several days of swirling speculation about whether Rumsfeld would resign, President Bush made a high-profile trip to the Pentagon Monday to stand at Rumsfeld's side and praise him for a "superb job."

By this time, Republicans were returning to their more typical political stance, defending the Bush administration and its handling of the war.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told me Tuesday on CNN's "Inside Politics" that the abuse seemed to be "confined to a relatively small group of people who acted badly."

And Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma went so far as to say he was "outraged about the outrage," suggesting other senators had forgotten that Americans had been killed in Iraq, and that the prisoners being mistreated were "murderers ... terrorists."

It was left mainly to Democrats, like Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas to point out, as Red Cross reports have concluded, that it's possible that many inmates in the prison "were there mistakenly or they were there being held without charge."

And some Republicans who had withheld a public show of support for Rumsfeld were coming around.

Consider Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who last week had said he was still not satisfied with the answers from Rumsfeld. But, on Tuesday, Graham said, "I think it would be unfair for him to take a fall if this is just a limited activity of a few people."

In the span of less than a week, most senators were back at their battle stations, firing across a partisan divide that seems to grow wider every year.

Still, in what small bit of unpredictability that Washington could serve up, a couple of Republicans were joining with Democrats, continuing to ask hard questions of top military officers.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, for example, told me that she just "cannot conceive that these guards, on their own initiatives, undertook these acts. I think there's more to this story yet to come."

Wednesday, senators and members of the House of Representatives were permitted to view hundreds of additional photos and video clips of what was described as even worse abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Whether these will deepen the partisan divide or prompt more Republicans to challenge the Pentagon's handling of the war is a question many in Washington are asking.


Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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