President Barack Obama on Wednesday reversed a decision to release photos showing abuse of "war on terror" detainees, saying he feared it would cause a backlash against US troops abroad.
The about-face came after the administration announced last month it had agreed to release hundreds of photos from US-run prisons in Iraq and elsewhere in response to a long-running lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
It remained unclear why Obama had changed his stance but the Pentagon said US military commanders had issued stern warnings that the photos could be used as a recruiting tool for extremists and jeopardize the safety of US troops.
The photos were used as evidence in criminal investigations of US soldiers accused of abusing detainees during president George W. Bush's administration.
Federal courts have ruled against the government in a series of decisions but Obama had instructed administration lawyers to try a new argument that the photos could put troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk, the White House said.
Obama said issuing the photos would "inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger" without shedding any new light on past abuses under the previous administration.
He told reporters "that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefits to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals."
He said the "these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib."
Photos showing abuse of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused global outrage and were exploited by Al-Qaeda and associated groups to recruit and rally anti-US sentiment.
Obama also said he was concerned that the images could have a "chilling effect" on future investigations into possible mistreatment of detainees.
He added that "any abuse of detainees is unacceptable" and would not be tolerated.
The decision meant the government would renew its legal fight against the release of the images, and would consider appealing the case to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department said.
The Bush administration had argued against the release of the photos in part by saying it violated the privacy rights of the detainees under the Geneva Conventions.
The ACLU and other rights groups condemned the decision.
"The Obama administration's adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president's stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government," Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said in a statement.
The photos are part of a wider debate about interrogation tactics against terror suspects employed by the Bush administration, with rights groups and Democratic lawmakers charging Bush-era figures approved torture.
Obama took the decision after weeks of discussions and amid growing anxiety within the administration about the possible effect of the photos in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, defense officials said.
As a May 28 deadline approached for the release of the photos under an agreement with the ACLU, "anxiety levels went up across the government" about the possible fallout from the images, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
The commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, was an especially "passionate" opponent of releasing the photos and his views had an impact on Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Odierno "was really the one who persuaded the secretary that this was something that had to be fought," Morrell said.
Gates and other members of Obama's national security team argued against the release of the images, saying it could undermine US efforts in Afghanistan just as additional troops are deployed and before crucial elections in August, he said.
Officials concluded that "the timing was particularly bad in Afghanistan," he said.