By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney rushed to the aid of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- under fire over Iraqi prison abuses -- by saying people should "get off his case" and let Rumsfeld do his job.
"Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had," Cheney said in a statement from his office late on Saturday. The statement appeared to signal a White House push to rally Republicans behind the embattled Rumsfeld.
"People ought to get off his case and let him do his job," said Cheney, a Republican.
Democrats, including presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, have demanded Rumsfeld's resignation following disclosures that Iraqi soldiers were mistreated in Iraqi prisons run by the U.S. occupying coalition.
The Washington Post newspaper said in its Sunday edition the Bush administration was reviewing hundreds of additional photographs of abuse of prisoners in Iraq, which a Pentagon official was quoted as calling "horrible."
The controversy over treatment of Iraqi prisoners erupted after CBS television showed photographs of the abuse.
President Bush said he had admonished Rumsfeld last week over his initial handling of the controversy, a rare public White House reference to a rebuke. But he said later Rumsfeld would remain in the cabinet.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was quoted in the Post as saying, shortly after speaking to Bush, that Rumsfeld will continue to have the president's support. "He has the strongest possible support here in the White House," Rice said.
Some analysts have said Rumsfeld's future could hang on the impact of the additional photographs of prisoner abuse, which Rumsfeld told Congress on Friday could further damage the United States.
The Washington Post said administration officials had been reviewing the additional photos. The newspaper quoted a Pentagon official as saying the images, including some digital video files, depicted "live-action abuse."
The paper said some White House officials were pushing for immediate release of the photos, while the Pentagon was instead considering offering viewings to Congress instead of widespread release.
In congressional testimony on Friday, Rumsfeld said he took responsibility for mistreatment and offered an apology to the victims. He said he would not resign to satisfy political enemies, but would step down if he could no longer be effective.
Some Republican lawmakers have also been skeptical of Rumsfeld's performance but have stopped short of urging his resignation.
Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems, a former aide to Rumsfeld, said the American public supports the defense secretary. Rumsfeld's feisty demeanor in Pentagon press briefings since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has gained him a high public profile.
"Americans want to keep Rumsfeld on the job. Why? Because the guy in the glasses they see on TV is the guy who is protecting them by going after the terrorists. That's who he is to the average American. That's the place he's earned since 9/11," Kellems said.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken last week, before Rumsfeld's appearance before Congress, said seven in 10 Americans believed Rumsfeld should not quit.
Cheney served as defense secretary in the 1991 Gulf War. He was also a deputy and successor to Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff under former President Gerald Ford. He and Rumsfeld were leading advocates in the Bush administration of last year's invasion of Iraq.