U.S. commanders moved swiftly to avert a crisis after a soldier deployed in Baghdad was found to have used a copy of the Koran for target practice.
The incident had the potential to inflame Muslim opinion against the U.S. military and compromise the delicate alliance it has been forging with Sunni Arab communities against religious extremists.
Local leaders accepted an apology from senior U.S. commanders, and the military said Sunday that the soldier responsible had been disciplined and pulled from Iraq.
Col. Bill Buckner, a U.S. military spokesman, described the incident as “serious and deeply troubling” but emphasized that it was an isolated case.
“This incident is not representative of the professionalism of our soldiers or the respect they have for all faiths,” he said in a statement.
Iraqi police found the desecrated copy of the Muslim holy book on May 11 at a small shooting range near a police station in Radwaniya, a mostly Sunni district on Baghdad’s western outskirts, Buckner said. The volume was riddled with bullets and had graffiti inside the cover.
Community leaders were outraged and threatened to stop helping the U.S. military fight the Sunni Arab militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, said Ayad Jabouri, a tribal leader and member of the country’s largest Sunni political party. The U.S. command ordered an immediate investigation.
“Commanders have since briefed local leaders on the results of the investigation and expressed their deep regret,” Buckner said. “They have also undertaken disciplinary action against the soldier who was involved, and he has been removed from Iraq.”
The military did not release the soldier’s name or detail how he would be disciplined, saying that the case was still being adjudicated.
A CNN crew was present when Army Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, met Saturday with tribal leaders in Radwaniya to offer an apology before a crowd of angry protesters.
“I am a man of honor. I am a man of character. You have my word, this will never happen again,” Hammond was quoted as saying in the CNN report. “In the most humble manner, I look in your eyes today, and I say please forgive me and my soldiers.”
Col. Ted Martin, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, then presented the tribal leaders with a new Koran, which he first kissed and touched to his forehead.
Jabouri said local sheiks had accepted the apology.
“Muslims and Arabs are targeted everywhere in the world,” he said. “The apology was very important to calm people down and convince them that not all soldiers, not all Americans, have the same opinion of Islam.”
Shiite lawmaker Haidar Fakhrildeen, a member of parliament’s religious affairs committee, said he did not expect the matter to escalate.
“We in the religious affairs committee will write a statement of denunciation, which will be distributed to parliament members with a copy to the media,” he said. “We can’t do more than that because the soldier was punished and this case will be considered as the behavior of an individual.”
Had the U.S. military not acted quickly, the affront to the Muslim holy book could have been deeply damaging to U.S. relations in Iraq. The publication in Denmark of provocative cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad caused riots in many parts of the Muslim world in 2006.
U.S. commanders in Iraq have spent months persuading Sunni Arab communities to help them fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly homegrown militant group that the military says is foreign-led.
Tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen, including former insurgents, now work for the U.S. military as neighborhood guards across central and northern Iraq. Commanders credit the fighters, dubbed Sons of Iraq, with helping to bring down violence.
In other developments Sunday, the government announced that a fugitive Al Qaeda in Iraq leader had been sentenced to hang for the slaying of Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho in the northern city of Mosul.
A statement issued by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s office identified the man as Ahmed Ali Ahmed, also known as Abu Omar, wanted for “many terror crimes against the people of Iraq.”
The country’s dwindling Christian community has been a frequent target of Muslim extremists. Rahho was kidnapped Feb. 29 by gunmen who killed his driver and two guards. His body was found two weeks later, though officials said at the time that it was unclear whether the ailing archbishop had been killed or had died of natural causes. In a statement, the U.S. Embassy praised Iraqi authorities for bringing the perpetrator to justice.
A U.S. soldier was killed Sunday and another injured when their vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in Salahuddin province, the military said. At least 4,078 U.S. personnel have been killed since the Iraq war began in 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
A car bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol in east Baghdad killed two soldiers and a civilian, police said. Ten people, including four soldiers, were injured.
Times staff writer Raheem Salman and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.