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Pentagon finds soldiers who burned Korans ignored Afghan warnings

Pentagon finds soldiers who burned Korans ignored Afghan warnings
A demonstrator shows a damaged Koran during a protest in February at the gate of Bagram air base north of Kabul in Afghanistan.
(Shah Marai, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — A Pentagon investigation into the burning of Korans at a U.S.-run prison in Afghanistan in February found that American soldiers ignored warnings from an Afghan officer and an interpreter and incinerated dozens of Islamic holy texts in a pit, sparking days of deadly riots across the country.

Army Brig. Gen. Bryan G. Watson, who conducted the probe, sharply criticized U.S. military officers and senior enlisted personnel at the prison, and outlined how mistakes in the U.S. command and distrust between American and Afghan soldiers led to what he called a tragic incident.

“U.S. service members made the decision to segregate, remove and burn the books and own the responsibility for their destruction,” Watson concluded in a report released Monday. “That U.S. service members did not heed the warnings of their [Afghan] partners is, perhaps, my biggest concern.”

The report confirms for the first time that 474 Korans were taken to the burn pit, far more than previously known. Watson said up to 100 were consumed in the flames.

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But Watson also concluded that U.S. soldiers at the prison, adjoining Bagram air base north of Kabul, did not act with “any malicious intent to disrespect” the Koran “or to defame the faith of Islam.”

News of what many Afghans considered a severe crime, rather than a mistake, sparked days of riots and attacks on U.S. troops. More than 30 people were killed, including six Americans.

In addition to releasing the report, the Army announced that six U.S. soldiers — four officers and two enlisted personnel — had received “administrative” punishment for their roles in case.

The Army did not release their names, citing privacy restrictions, or specify the punishment. Administrative actions could include a written reprimand, reduction in rank or forfeiture of pay.

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The decision means that no U.S. soldier will face criminal charges or be court-martialed in connection with the Koran burning. President Hamid Karzai called for the Americans involved to be put on trial, even after President Obama telephoned him to apologize for the incident.

Col. Jonathan Withington, an Army spokesman, said Monday that a senior general whom he refused to identify had decided that administrative punishment was appropriate in the case. He declined to explain the decision further.

The Pentagon also announced discipline in another high-profile case.

Officials said three Marines, whose names were not disclosed, were given “nonjudicial punishment” for a video that came to light in January showing members of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, urinating on dead insurgents in 2011.

According to a military statement, one Marine was punished for “urinating on the body of a deceased Taliban soldier,” another for “wrongfully posing for an unofficial photograph with human casualties” and the third for making a false statement to investigators. More charges are likely in the case, Marine Col. Sean Gibson said.

The Pentagon announced disciplinary actions in the two cases on the same day in an effort to put them to rest at once, an official said.

But the move, and what many Afghans may see as relatively light punishments of the Americans involved, raised concerns of fresh violence in Afghanistan. So-called insider attacks by disaffected Afghan soldiers and police have killed more than a dozen U.S. soldiers in recent weeks.

The Koran burning began when U.S. military police and an Army counterintelligence unit became convinced that Afghan prisoners were using books from the prison library to pass messages. In mid-February, soldiers put aside 40 to 55 books for closer examination.

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But when an Afghan interpreter said that as many as 75% of the library’s volumes contained “extremist content,” the team removed more books. They ultimately confiscated more than 2,000 books, and a battalion commander at the prison ordered them to “get rid of” the materials, the report says.

“It was common knowledge among the search team members that they were handling religious books among other texts in the library,” Watson found.

An interpreter who overheard U.S. soldiers discuss burning the books warned an officer in the counterintelligence unit that it would desecrate Islam’s holiest book. Later, an Afghan officer told U.S. soldiers loading the books into a truck that the pile included Korans.

“A larger crowd of [Afghan soldiers] began to gather,” but even so, a U.S. noncommissioned officer ordered the books taken to the burn pit, Watson said.

The Afghan soldiers contacted their superiors, who quickly contacted other U.S. officers. Two U.S. soldiers were sent to intercept the truck, but they couldn’t find it, Watson found.

At the burn pit, U.S. soldiers began throwing books into the flames “without soliciting any Afghan workers to help.” After one noticed the Korans, the Afghans shut off the incinerator and doused the flames with water.

“The three U.S. service members in the burn pit became frightened by the growing, angry crowd and rapidly departed the area,” the report says.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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