The photographs that President George Bush does not want the American public to see show the flag-draped coffins containing the bodies of American servicemen and women - dying in Iraq at a rate of between four and six a day - being returned to the US and to their families.
Aware of the power of these pictures and their potential to inflict political damage on Mr Bush as he campaigns for re-election, his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, is desperate that they should not be published. Under a White House directive, the press has not been permitted to photograph the return of such coffins for more than a year. But last week 361 images of military coffins being returned to Dover air force base in Delaware were released to an internet news site under the Freedom of Information Act.
This week the Pentagon decided it should not have provided the pictures after all, and barred further releases. "Quite frankly, we don't want the remains of our service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice to be the subject of any kind of attention that is unwarranted or undignified," said John Moline, a deputy undersecretary of defence.
Almost 700 American troops and thousands of Iraqi civilians and insurgents have been killed since the US-led operation to oust Saddam Hussein began. From the US perspective at least, the past month has perhaps been the deadliest, with about a hundred soldiers and marines being killed.
Mr Bush admitted this himself, saying recently there was "no question it's been a tough, tough, tough series of weeks for the American people". Despite this, Mr Bush has not yet attended a single funeral service for any of those killed in Iraq something that has outraged many of the families. Polls suggest that public approval of the President's handling of the war and the occupation is down from 51 per cent to 44 per cent.
Since their release, the photographs have been published prominently by newspapers and received widespread coverage by the television networks triggering further debate about the war. Only Rupert Murdoch's Fox News has declined to show the pictures or report any discussion about the White House's decision to prevent their publication.
The images the White House wanted to censor were obtained by Russ Kick, from Tucson, Arizona, who runs a website called The Memory Hole (www.thememoryhole.org) and who filed a Freedom of Information Act application. Air force officials denied the request but decided to release the photos after Mr Kick appealed against their decision. Mr Kick was unavailable for comment yesterday, but on his website he wrote: "These are the images that the Pentagon prevented the public from seeing."
Controversy over such images was further fuelled by the Seattle Times's decision to publish similar photographs on its front page last Sunday.
Those pictures were taken in Kuwait by Tami Silicio, who worked for a cargo aircraft contractor, Maytag Aircraft Corp, based in Los Angeles
Ms Silicio, 50, was fired by the company on Wednesday after concerns were raised by military officials. The company's president, William Silva, told the Seattle Times that while the decision to fire Ms Silicio had been the company's, the US military had identified "very specific concerns" about her actions. He declined to detail those concerns.
Ms Silicio told ABC television: "I think if the administration were more sympathetic, they would see that this is a positive thing. [Family members] want to see how our loved ones, how our heroes, are being taking care of and how they get home." The Pentagon says it has barred publication out of respect to "families' feelings and requests". But many relatives of soldiers who died in Iraq believe the White House is trying to cover up what is happening there. Sue Niederer said she was refused permission to see the return of her son Seth Dvorin's body as it was flown into the Dover base. Lieutenant Dvorin, 24, from the 101st Airborne Division, was killed in February while trying to disarm a roadside bomb, a task for which he was not trained.
Speaking from her home in New Jersey, Mrs Niederer said: "They killed my son and they did not permit me to be there to see the coffin. They said it was for health reasons, and ... they did not want the public to see it and they did not want the newspapers there." She added: "They don't want any of this being shown because it's reality. A coffin strikes home. If you don't see the coffin you just say: 'Oh, there's another one who has died.' But when you show the coffin, you show families, you show people and emotions. This is what they are doing this is what they do not want you to see."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd