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Bush Firmly Backs Rumsfeld Erasing Resignation Rumors

By Richard W. Stevenson

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

President Bush made a robust show of support on Monday for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as the White House, the Pentagon and Congress grappled with whether and how to release more pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers.

After meeting at the Pentagon with his war council, Bush emerged to face reporters and television cameras, flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney on his right and Rumsfeld on his left, and delivered an unqualified endorsement of his defense secretary.

“You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror,” he said to Rumsfeld. “You are doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude.”

In doing so, Bush sought to quash speculation that he would seek Rumsfeld’s resignation. By arraying some of his other senior aides around him as he made the statement -- including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- Bush sought to create a tableau of a national security team that, however fractured it has been over Iraq, was now united in its determination to deal with the repercussions of the abuse cases, quell the insurgency in Iraq and transfer governance to the Iraqi people.

Bush later went to Rumsfeld’s office, where he was shown more than a dozen images of the abuse, most of which have not been publicized, White House and Pentagon officials said. Bush’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, characterized the president’s reaction as “one of deep disgust and disbelief that anyone who wears our uniform would engage in such shameful and appalling acts.”

Administration officials debated whether to release publicly all the pictures in the government’s possession, with many of the president’s political and communications advisers advocating moving quickly to get the images out and avoid the prospect of weeks or months in which they leak out piecemeal.

But no decision was made, officials said, adding that they continued to weigh issues including the effect of any release on pending criminal inquiries and the privacy of people shown in the images, some of which, government officials said, show American soldiers having sex with one another.

Separately, the Pentagon and Congressional leaders continued to negotiate over ways to allow lawmakers to view the images in the absence of a public release.

The Senate, by a vote of 92-0, adopted a resolution condemning the prisoner abuse. The resolution also included language sought by Democrats that called for the Senate to “conduct a full investigation of the abuses alleged to have occurred at Abu Ghraib” and hold those responsible accountable.

Bush’s Democratic rival in the presidential race, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, continued to criticize the administration’s handling of the abuse cases. Suggesting that he did not want to see punishment limited to courts-martial of those directly involved in the abuse of the Iraqi detainees, he told a local television reporter in Pennsylvania that he opposed a total focus on “people at the low end of the totem pole, and we’re not going up the chain for real accountability,” adding: “It clearly goes beyond a corporal and a sergeant.”