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The image war over US detainees

Debate over the word 'gulag' and treatment of the Koran in US detention facilities symbolizes a broader challenge for US.

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The Bush administration appears to have opened a whole new front in its war on terror: a forceful, full-scale defense of the morality of its detention-camp policies.

First came harsh criticism of Newsweek magazine for its since-retracted charge of Koran abuse at the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. More recently top officials have pushed back - hard - against Amnesty International's use of "gulag" to describe Guantánamo's conditions.

The intensity and coordination of administration remarks on this issue may reflect a belated recognition of the stakes involved. Rightly or not, to much of the world the abuse of prisoners in US custody may now be emblematic of American foreign policy as a whole.

Problems at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere "raise profoundly the US valuation on justice," says George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In its latest attempt to minimize the impact of revelations about detention conditions, Bush officials over the weekend played down a new military report on mishandling of the Koran at Guantánamo.

The report, released June 3, detailed five incidents during which the Islamic holy book was either kicked, stepped on, or soaked in water.

The military said that the incidents were unusual, considering that interrogators have conducted over 28,000 interviews at the prison, and that official policy emphasizes sensitivity towards detainees' religious faith.

On Saturday, White House officials reiterated this theme.

"There were three times as many confirmed incidents of [Koran] abuse by detainees, a number of which were far worse than the few isolated incidents of mishandling by a few individuals that violated military policies and practices," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

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