WASHINGTON — Twenty-five Iraqi and Afghan war prisoners have died in U.S. custody in the last 17 months, including two Iraqi detainees who may have been murdered by Americans, senior defense officials said Tuesday as the Bush administration moved to contain international outrage over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Pentagon officials released few details of the 25 deaths, which they said were among 35 cases of possible instances of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers.
President Bush today will begin giving interviews to Arab media to help mitigate Arab -- and international -- furor over graphic photographs of naked detainees being humiliated by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. White House officials revealed that Bush was made aware in late December or early January of allegations of abuse at the prison.
On Tuesday, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made statements condemning the abuse, saying the president had demanded that those responsible be held accountable.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans called for a congressional investigation of the military's handling of the scandal and strongly criticized the Pentagon's failure to inform lawmakers.
There also were suggestions that similar problems existed at facilities used to house Afghan war prisoners as early as 2001.
In Baghdad, the new U.S. detention chief in Iraq said Tuesday that the military planned to reduce drastically the detainee population at the notorious jail and had embarked on a broad plan to eliminate abuse of prisoners throughout Iraq.
"There were errors made. We have corrected them," Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller told journalists.
Rice, in an interview aired on Al Arabiya satellite television channel, sought to counter the fallout from the widely publicized graphic photos.
"I want to assure people in the Arab world, Iraq, around the world, and the American people, that the president is determined to get to the bottom of it, to know who is responsible and to make sure that whoever is responsible is punished for it and held accountable," Rice said.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage appeared in an interview Tuesday on U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra Arabic-language television, calling the mistreatment "despicable."
In an appearance Tuesday at the United Nations, Powell said, "What they did was illegal, against all regulations, against all standards. It was immoral."
Powell, like other administration officials, said the U.S. had acted rapidly and responsibly when it learned of the abuse. But he acknowledged that he was worried about adverse effects on American standing abroad.
"Yes, I'm deeply concerned at the horrible image this has sent around the world," Powell said. "But at the same time, I want to remind the world that it's a small number of troops who acted in an illegal, improper manner."
At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld promised to take "whatever steps are necessary" to punish anyone who violated military law in the treatment of detainees.
"The actions of the soldiers in those photographs are totally unacceptable and un-American," Rumsfeld said. "Any who engaged in such action let down their comrades who serve honorably each day, and they let down their country."
Rumsfeld and Army officials detailed 35 investigations of alleged criminal misconduct by American personnel who handled detainees, all since December 2002. Ten of the 35 cases involved rape, assault and other injuries and are still under investigation, said Gen. George Casey, the Army's vice chief of staff.
Of the 25 reported deaths, 12 were labeled "undetermined or natural" causes. Ten others remain under investigation.
Of the three remaining deaths, one was an Iraqi who was killed by an American guard while trying to escape. The shooting death was later ruled to be a "justifiable homicide," Casey said.
In the remaining two cases, the slayings of Iraqi detainees were found to have been unjustified, said another Army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. One soldier at a forward operating camp was convicted of using excessive force in September by shooting an Iraqi detainee who was throwing rocks at him. That soldier, who was not named, was downgraded in rank from specialist to private and discharged from the Army but not jailed.
The second case, of a CIA contract worker who allegedly killed an Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib in November, was referred to the Justice Department, the official said. The civilian could not be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, officials said.
All but one of the abuse allegations involved Army soldiers, Casey said. The exception involved an employee of an "other government agency," a term often used to describe CIA operatives.
In the Abu Ghraib abuse case, six soldiers, as yet unnamed, face criminal charges in court-martial proceedings, and six others have received letters of reprimand, Pentagon officials said.