US troops punished for Quran burning, urination video

Washington:  American military authorities disciplined nine service members on Monday for two episodes this year - the burning of Qurans and the posting of a video showing Marines urinating on dead insurgents - that prompted nationwide outrage in Afghanistan. The punishments did not include criminal charges or jail time, and they fell short of what President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had demanded.

Army officials said that four Army officers and two enlisted soldiers received letters of reprimand for sending boxes of Qurans from a prison library to a burn pit at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Although an Army investigation that was made public on Monday found that the soldiers did not act out of "malicious intent" to disrespect the Quran or defame Islam, investigators concluded that they did not follow proper procedures, were ignorant of the importance of the Quran to Afghans and got no clear guidance from their leaders in a chain of mistakes.

The Marine Corps said three of four Marines seen in a video urinating on the body of a dead Taliban fighter received "nonjudicial punishments," which could include letters of reprimand, a reduction in rank, forfeit of some pay, physical restriction to a military base, extra duties or some combination of those measures. The corps did not say what happened to the fourth officer.

The Marine Corps did not release the results of its investigation into the episode because, officials said, there were continuing inquiries about higher-ranking officers in the unit involved, which was part of the Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Military officials said the punishments were not as light as they might seem to the public - letters of reprimand effectively end most military careers - but it was unclear how they would be viewed in Afghanistan, where the Quran burning touched off days of riots across the country and compelled Mr. Karzai to call for a public trial.

American military officials said they were hopeful that Afghans would take the news calmly. "We have conveyed our condolences to the government and the Afghan people," said Col. Thomas W. Collins, a spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan. "These were both terrible mistakes."

Neither the Army nor the Marine Corps released the names or ranks of the service members involved in the two episodes, which seriously worsened relations between the United States and Afghanistan, although the Quran burning engendered far more outrage than the Marine video did.

The Quran episode occurred in February at the library of the Parwan detention center on the edge of Bagram Air Base, where thousands of Afghans captured by American and international forces are held.

Officers there worried that some detainees were communicating through notes written in library books, potentially to plan an attack. As a precaution, the officers assigned two Afghan-American interpreters to sort through the library's books and identify those that might contain messages that could pose a security risk.

By the time the interpreters were finished, nearly 2,000 volumes, including copies of the Quran and other religious texts, had been set aside for removal. According to the investigation, one interpreter reported that up to 75 percent of the books in the library contained extremist content. But high-ranking Afghan religious officials who conducted their own inquiry said at the time that they doubted the writing in the books was anything other than personal notations, and that some of it was simply notes of detainees' imprisonment, their names, their fathers' names and the locations and times of their arrest.

Still, the books were deemed "sensitive material" by American military officials, who said they decided to burn them because there was no place to store them all. Although an Afghan National Army officer and a linguist expressed concern when they saw the books loaded onto a truck, they were still taken to the Bagram base's incinerator. As workers began heaving them into the flames, an Afghan laborer offered to help - and then started screaming when he realized what they were. The Americans immediately stopped, but by then at least four Qurans had been badly burned.

The officer who led the investigation, Brig. Gen. Bryan G. Watson, said in his report that the fact "that U.S. service members did not heed the warnings of their A.N.A. partners is, perhaps, my biggest concern."

The Marine video became public in January, when it was posted on video-sharing Web sites including LiveLeak and YouTube. Military officials said at the time that they did not know who had made the video, but confirmed that it was authentic. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials swiftly expressed outrage and offered apologies to the Afghan government.

The video showed four Marines urinating over what appeared to be the corpses of three Taliban fighters. One of the Marines was heard saying, "Have a great day, buddy."

Marine officials said on Monday that the action in the video took place during a counterinsurgency operation on or around July 27, 2011, in the Musa Qala district in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold and a center of opium poppy production that was the scene of tough fighting at the time. Of the roughly 1,000 Marines in the battalion, seven were killed during the unit's seven-month deployment in the area.

The Marine Corps said in a statement that one of the three disciplined officers pleaded guilty to urinating on the body of a dead Taliban fighter; another pleaded guilty to recording the video; and the third pleaded guilty to making a false statement to an investigator about his knowledge of the matter.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: August 28, 2012 14:03 IST

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