Five U.S. service members found involved in Quran-burning
PUL-E-ALAM, Afghanistan -- Military investigators have concluded that five U.S. service members were involved in the incineration of a pile of Qurans last week in Afghanistan, according to military officials briefed on the inquiry.
The burning of the Muslim holy books, which American officials say was accidental, incited a week of protests that left 30 Afghans dead. The incineration was cited as motivation for at least some of the six fatal attacks on U.S. military personnel that have occurred in Afghanistan in the past eight days.
Investigators appointed by Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, found that the service members removed the Qurans from a prison at Bagram air base after they were discovered to contain extremist messages.
The books were then placed in an office for safekeeping, according to the inquiry. But they were mistaken for garbage and taken to a landfill on the base.
Afghan employees identified the books as Qurans just as the pages caught fire, a major desecration according to Muslim teachings. The discovery led to a week of unprecedented tension between American and Afghan military officials.
U.S. military officials said that although the five service members will be reprimanded, it is unlikely that their names will be released or that their punishment will approach the severity of what some Afghans are demanding, including trial in an Islamic court.
"For the soldiers, it will be serious -- they could lose rank. But you're not going to see the kind of public trial that some here seem to want," said one U.S. military official.
Another military official said: "What they did was careless, but there was no ill will."
The much-discussed investigation was intended to quell unrest and prove to the Afghan public that American officials were both apologetic and willing to make amends for wrongdoing.
But U.S. military officials expressed concern that the investigation's finding, which stops short of pinning blame on malevolent service members, might not satisfy Afghan leaders who have publicly demanded harsh retribution.
Senior Afghan clerics, in a statement issued after a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, said: "This evil action cannot be forgiven by apologizing. The perpetrators of the mentioned crime should be put on a public trial as soon as possible."
NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings declined to comment on the findings of the military inquiry, saying it was "still going through the legal process."
A separate Afghan investigation, which is being conducted by lawmakers and religious officials, is expected to conclude in several days. U.S. military officials worry that if the Afghan investigation clashes with their findings, it could reinvigorate demonstrators whose anger has appeared to fade this week.
"There's a real concern there. We don't know what the investigation will say or how the public will react," one official said. "But we know that there's a real interest in trying guilty parties in an Afghan court, and that's not something we're prepared to do."
Gavin Sundwall, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said American officials "certainly hope" that the release of the Afghan report will not lead to more violence.