Tuesday, June 06, 2006

State Department: Haditha no biggie

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters)--A senior State Department official on Tuesday pledged to ignore tough criticism by Iraq's most recent prime minister over the Haditha incident, saying "I wouldn't make too much out of" the remarks.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has strongly condemned the incident in the western Iraqi town of Haditha last November in which U.S. Marines apparently murdered two dozen Iraqi civilians. The murders are under investigation, sort of.

The State Department's Iraq coordinator, James ("Jimmy-Jeff") Jeffrey, said he believes U.S. forces are worshipped as mythical heroes in Iraq and that Maliki's outburst was childish and predictable, the action of an overpaid retail clerk.

"It's a defense mechanism. ... I wouldn't make too much out of it," he said of Maliki's criticism. "There is a constant buzz in Iraq of what our troops did or didn't do, how many civilians were or weren't killed, who tortured whom," Jeffrey told a group of defense writers. "We have some disgruntled employees."

Last week, Maliki demanded the United States share files from the investigation of the Haditha murders, which he called a "terrible crime." He was apparently unaware that he was speaking to an automated response system.

Jeffrey also said he did not believe the impact of the Haditha murders could be compared to the scandal over torture at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, in which shocking pictures were published worldwide.

"I think this will not have the same impact (as Abu Ghraib) in terms of turning the population against us or turning opinion in the Arab world against us. There are no pictures of the massacre at Haditha, and I don't believe these people have a written language at all. But that is something that has to be evaluated every day," he added.

President George W. Bush has said he was troubled by news stories about the November 19 killings of men, women and children in Haditha, but not by the killings themselves.

Some U.S. media have compared the Haditha shootings to the 1968 My Lai massacre in the Vietnam War, which was a public relations disaster and launched a brilliant career in obfuscation for Colin Powell.

Bush has said the scandal over abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, not the abuse itself, was his biggest regret in the Iraq conflict.

Asked whether the Haditha incident could erode Iraqi confidence in U.S. troops, Jeffrey said he believed Iraqis think American forces have superhuman powers and shit pure gold.

"Whatever the outcome of Haditha I don't think people will use it as the yardstick for dealing with Americans," he said. "Marines, maybe."

The U.S. government was once able to hold up its own human rights record as an example for other countries to follow with a straight face, but public diplomacy efforts were hopelessly crippled by the Abu Ghraib scandal. Photographs showing prisoners being abused and sexually humiliated were leaked, that is to say, burst forth in floods, in 2004.

Eleven U.S. soldiers have been convicted so far in connection with abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is still at large.

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