WASHINGTON -- President Bush stood behind embattled Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, saying he would remain in the Cabinet despite mounting pressure from Democrats that he step down because of the prisoner abuse in Iraq.
"Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense," Bush said in the Rose Garden after meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan. "Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the secretary during two wars. He is an important part of my Cabinet, and he'll stay in my Cabinet."
But calls for Rumsfeld to resign and take responsibility for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison came from congressional Democrats, led by Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the party's presumptive presidential nominee. [Related story, A3.]
"Secretary Rumsfeld's leadership of the Pentagon has unnecessarily jeopardized the safety of American troops, and it has seriously undermined our ability to prosecute the war on terrorism," Pelosi said. "The Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld oversees has become an island of unaccountability, ignoring the Geneva Conventions, our allies, and common sense."
Asked while campaigning in California whether Rumsfeld, 71, should resign, Kerry replied that he should have quit "long ago" and faulted him for not providing Congress with information about pre-interrogation practices at the prison near Baghdad.
Congressional Republicans, who have also been critical of Rumsfeld in recent days, refrained from blaming him directly for the abuse, waiting to hear his defense today before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. But they have also criticized him for failing to tell them about graphic photos that became public last week of Iraqis being tied up, beaten, and forced to parade naked before cameras, sometimes in sexually explicit positions.
Rumsfeld canceled an appearance in Philadelphia yesterday so he could huddle with advisers and prepare to testify before the committees, which called the hearing to examine the prisoner abuses. At least three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, plan to broadcast the session between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Bush administration officials said privately they were concerned that if senior Republican lawmakers begin calling for Rumsfeld's dismissal, the political pressure would be too much to withstand.
"There are a lot of senators that would like to have been aware of the situation prior to hearing about it on television," Senator John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said in an interview.
A growing number of critics also blamed the Pentagon chief indirectly for the abuses by creating a military culture in occupied Iraq that did not sufficiently define limits on the methods used to pressure detainees to be forthcoming in interrogations.
Rumsfeld, the two-time Pentagon chief who a year ago was hailed by some as a visionary for the speedy removal of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, declared in 2002 that the Geneva Conventions were outdated and inapplicable to many suspected terrorists, because they were not part of an organized army. He said that the United States would honor some standards in the conventions concerning humane treatment of wartime prisoners. Under his watch, prison guards have been permitted to prepare detainees for interrogation by subjecting them to "stress and duress," according to Pentagon reports recently made public.
Such preparations apparently got out of hand at Abu Ghraib, where six soldiers, private contractors, and intelligence agents have been accused of sexual and physical abuse of prisoners. The six soldiers are facing criminal charges, and some of their commanders have been relieved of duty.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said yesterday that some of the civilian contractors involved could face criminal charges.
Former federal officials cited Rumsfeld's policy of not declaring most detainees from Afghanistan and Iraq as prisoners of war for breeding a culture of permissiveness that may have led to the abuse. The Geneva Conventions, at a minimum, require that detainees be given a formal hearing to determine whether or not they are eligible for POW status -- something the Pentagon has refused to do.
The Yale Law School dean-designate, Harold Koh, a former assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Clinton administration, said the abuse of prisoners was the indirect result of Rumsfeld's policy of setting aside the Geneva Conventions for captured belligerents at the start of the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I think the Defense Department is reaping the whirlwind of its strategy of condoning wide-scale departures from traditional POW protections," Koh said. "They're there for a reason. Some of these officials have treated the legal regimes as a nuisance to be disgarded in the war against terrorism, when it turns out they're playing a very important role in protecting our troops from violations -- and protecting our country against needless humiliation by conduct that most Americans find abhorrent."
A Pentagon report in March, made public last week, said that no copies of the Geneva Conventions were found posted in Abu Ghraib prison, a step considered a basic necessity to maintain discipline among prison guards.
The United States has also deviated from traditional practices at the military detention facility at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by not following the Geneva Conventions' precedure for holding a formal review for each detainee to determine whether they are eligible for POW status.
According to military and intelligence officials, the Guantanamo guards help "set the conditions" for interrogations of detainees, a process that officials say included efforts to break them down psychologically.
The report by Army Major General Antonio Taguba found that the same practices were going on at the Abu Ghraib prison, with guards being asked to subject prisoners to stressful treatment to prepare them for questioning.
"Interrogators actively requested that [military police] guards set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses," Taguba wrote.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday it had repeatedly warned the United States about abuses in Iraq since last year. "We were aware of what was going on, and based on our findings, we have repeatedly requested the US authorities to take corrective action," said Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the organization in Geneva."
Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense during the Vietnam War and has advised Rumsfeld on Iraq, said in an interview that Rumsfeld must go.
"I think he should resign," McNamara said. "There are times when that has to happen."
McNamara, who said he had not done enough to curb abuses committed by American troops in Vietnam, said Rumsfeld should conclude, "It happened on my watch and, by God, I feel responsible and I am resigning."
Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, said on the floor of the House of Representatives -- which yesterday passed a resolution, 365 to 50, condemning the abuses -- that "if the president doesn't fire the secretary, if he doesn't resign, I think it is the duty of this Congress to file articles of impeachment."
Charlie Savage and Susan Milligan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.