Allegations of torture. Pictures of bloodied prisoners. Reminders of embarrassing acts by US troops.
All of a sudden, US President George W. Bush's administration finds itself thrown back on the defensive in its long campaign to persuade the Muslim world that the global war on terrorism is not a war on the Muslim faith.
In just a few days, the US has endured a pair of blows to its image abroad. The publication of previously unseen photos from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, plus a UN report calling for the closure of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, have forced the administration to defend its record and try to regain the public relations initiative.
"It reiterates how important the battle for hearts and minds is, and how poorly we're doing," said P.J. Crowley, a one-time Pentagon spokesman who is director of national defense and homeland security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning research institute.
With the Australian news media and the Web site Salon.com unveiling pictures and documents about US troops abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib in 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tried to put the matter to rest on Thursday. He told a congressional panel that nothing in the photos and videos was new, and had all been investigated.
"I'm told that these photographs that are coming out now are nothing more than the same things that came out before, if not identical, of the same type of behavior," Rumsfeld said. "That behavior's been punished."
Administration officials also sought to discredit a UN report released on Thursday on the US military's detention facility for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, which urged that it be closed down Some interrogation techniques caused extreme suffering, the UN report said.
"Such treatment amounts to torture," it said.
That's exactly the kind of accusation the Pentagon repeatedly has denied but cannot seem to escape, more than four years after terror suspects captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan began arriving at Guantanamo Bay.
Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for Rumsfeld, told reporters he saw no merit in the UN report, whose authors did not visit the prison after being promised only partial access to prisoners.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected the report's call to shut down the prison compound.
"These are dangerous terrorists that we're talking about that are there," McClellan said, adding the report was a "rehash" of allegations based on claims by al-Qaeda terrorists who are trained to lie.
"It is difficult for us to preach democracy on the one hand when acting undemocratically -- if not illegally -- on the other hand," Crowley said.
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