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Guantanamo Bay increasingly a political issue

WASHINGTON

Last year it was Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail; this year, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. To much of the world, both are symbols of American abuse of Muslim detainees. As debate mounts about interrogation policies at Guantanamo, the Bush administration seems torn on the military prison's fate.

President Bush has appeared to be leaving the door open to the option of closing it, saying last week his administration was "exploring all alternatives."

Still, Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday there were no immediate plans for closing the detention center located on the U.S. naval base in Cuba. He called it "an essential part of our strategy of prevailing and winning in the ongoing war on terror."

Even so, calls for closing the prison have been growing as reports of U.S. abuse of terror-war prisoners have further undermined efforts to win support in the Muslim world.

Shutting the prison camp and moving the detainees somewhere else would not solve the U.S. image problem, said Michele Flournoy, who was a senior Pentagon official in the Clinton administration. "If we want to come out of this conflict with extremists, we have to show that we are morally different, that we won't kill civilians as a means of terror and we won't torture people to get information," she said.

"And anything that erodes that moral high ground, or even the perception of it, ultimately damages our chances of success," said Flournoy, now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Thrown on the defensive by new published reports of abuse at the prison, the administration was treading carefully on the issue Monday.

At the White House, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said "nothing's changed" since Bush talked about leaving options open. However, McClellan added, "We remain a nation at war. The individuals who are at Guantanamo Bay are dangerous terrorists who seek to do harm to the American people."

In the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Bush was quick to condemn mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners shown in photographs snapped by American soldiers, saying he shared "a deep disgust that those prisoners were treated the way they were treated." U.S. soldiers have been prosecuted.

With Guantanamo Bay, damage control is more complicated because other issues such as the legitimacy of holding prisoners indefinitely as enemy combatants are also at stake.

"The issue is about more than Guantanamo. This is about the administration's misguided detainee policies and its unwillingness to hold senior people accountable," said Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

A poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center conducted June 8-12 showed the public highly attentive to news from Iraq and to the continuing reports of prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay.

By a 54 percent to 34 percent margin, however, most of those surveyed said they believed the Guantanamo reports represented isolated instances rather than a wider pattern of mistreatment.

The poll showed a large partisan gap, with three times as many Democrats as Republicans saying the Guantanamo abuse was more widespread. It also showed young people - ages 18 to 29 - more likely than other age groups to believe in a wider pattern of prisoner mistreatment. This age group was evenly split on the issue.

Administration officials were seeking to emphasize the mostly partisan nature of the criticism.

Cheney, speaking at the National Press Club, said, "The track record there is on the whole pretty good." He denied any negative fallout for the nation's image internationally. "Those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don't agree with our policies anyway."

But it wasn't only Democrats raising questions.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., suggested Guantanamo Bay was one reason the United States was "losing the image war around the world." Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., publicly wondered about the "cost-benefit ratio. ... How much do you get out of having that facility there?"

But for the most part, Republicans in Congress followed the White House on treatment of prisoners at the detention center.

"We have hundreds of directional signs, which are taped on the ground and on the buildings at Guantanamo to indicate to the inmates where Mecca is so they can position themselves appropriately on the prayer rugs that have been purchased for them by the American taxpayers," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.

He said closing the prison camp would only mean "all the things that we do for them right now, we'll have to do that someplace else."

Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.