ARLINGTON, Va. — The public hailstorm surrounding the investigation into abuses by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib in Iraq has given extremists and militants a new and powerful recruiting tool that endangers not just U.S. warfighters in the Middle East, but all Americans, said one defense analyst.

“This is certainly going to be used by Arabs and Muslims who already hate or are disgusted [with Americans] as an example of why we shouldn’t be trusted and why we should be hated,” said Charles Pena, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.

“This is one more easy recruiting and propaganda tool, and it doesn’t have to be Osama bin Laden, but any militant or radical Islamic extremist who can use this to recruit people to their cause … and to incite violence against Americans and America.

“This will be hard to fix, if fixing is even possible.”

Graphic images of bound and naked detainees have flooded the Internet, newspapers and televisions stations worldwide, and the leaked 53-page classified report detailing the gruesome allegations has been posted to the Internet.

News travels fast, and U.S. Marines halfway around the world in Haiti were paying attention, said Maj. Justin Rodriguez, executive officer for the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines.

“How did they react? With outright disgust and anger,” Rodriquez said in a phone interview from Haiti, where about 1,600 U.S. forces have been deployed for little more than two months. “If they access to the media, they are following this. They’re interested in what’s going on.”

But if there’s a silver lining to be found, it’s that the reports might have made “the average servicemember … the one actually on the ground out doing the job, better at what they do,” Rodriguez said. “They go to great lengths in these type of operations to look out for the rights and welfare of the civilians and I think it causes the servicemember to pay more attention to what he’s doing.”

The controversy, added to pundits opinions who say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld botched the war in Iraq — and now reports of President Bush’s private expressions of disappointment in his top defense man — have renewed calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation.

But that’s not likely to be something that will weigh heavily on the average U.S. troop’s mind, even when the country is at war, Pena said.

“My guess is that the average soldier identifies more with their immediate military change of command and the president as commander-in-chief more than they do with the secretary of defense,” Pena said.

“That’s not to say that they don’t respect the Secretary of Defense, or that they don’t have affinity or feelings of loyalty, but I think that if the Secretary of Defense leaves for whatever reason, that’s probably not a huge factor on morale or anything else,” Pena said. “After all, it’s a politically appointed position and they know that person serves at the request of the president.”

Rodriguez agreed. For the most part, deployed troops are focused on the missions at hand, and don’t worry too much about politics back in Washington, D.C.

Rumsfeld isn’t likely to step down on his own, Pena opined.

“I don’t know if this is enough to shake the president’s faith in Don Rumsfeld, but if he does leave and this is the issue, it would have to come from the top for him to leave. He won’t volunteer.”

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