The burning of the Quran, the Islamic scripture, in a trash dump at the biggest U.S. military base in Afghanistan ignited a protest outside the facility and brought apologies from the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta condemned the burning, which the top American commander in Afghanistan said was inadvertent. “These actions do not represent the views of the United States military,” George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters today.
Thousands of Afghan men threw rocks at the gates of the Bagram air base, about 60 miles north of the capital, Kabul, after Afghan workers emerged carrying charred Qurans, said Abdul Basir Salangi, the governor of Parwan province, where Bagram is located. “People were in a very violent mood and were shouting ‘Death to America,’ ” Salangi said in a telephone interview.
While the protest ended by nightfall, the Koran-burning will worsen damage to Afghans’ image of the U.S.-led forces from a series of incidents in the past year, according to Salangi and Abdurrahim Muqdader, a tribal elder in the province.
“This incident is a big victory for the Taliban because Afghans will believe what they say — that the foreigners are here to dishonor our book and Islamic culture,” Muqdader said in a phone interview. He said the Koran-burning will increase the danger in coming days of Afghan troops or police attacking U.S. soldiers in revenge.
Afghan troops, police or security guards have killed about 70 troops or other personnel of the U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan in 46 attacks since 2007, according to Defense Department figures prepared for a Feb. 1 congressional hearing. The United States is training the Afghan forces to take over security duties as the Obama administration prepares to withdraw the main U.S. combat force from Afghanistan by 2014.
An Afghan policeman shot dead two U.S. soldiers in April amid four days of protests across Afghanistan sparked when a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, oversaw the burning of a Koran at his church. In that upheaval, Afghan rioters killed 24 people, including seven international employees of the United Nations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Afghans protested again last month when a video was posted on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans who may have been Taliban guerrillas. Panetta and other American officials condemned that incident.
Riots in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world were triggered after Newsweek magazine reported in 2005 that the Koran had been mishandled at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Today’s protest erupted after personnel of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, “improperly disposed of a large number of Islamic religious materials,” which included Qurans, said the force’s commander, U.S. Army Gen. John Allen. “The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities,” Allen said in a statement posted on the ISAF website.
Allen also ordered that all coalition forces in Afghanistan undergo training in “the proper handling of religious materials” by March 3.
The books burned had been taken from a library at a prison for alleged Taliban and allied Islamic militant fighters, according to the ISAF. The volumes were thrown into a pile of debris for burning and pulled out by Afghan employees of the base, including Muhammad Nabi.
“I was collecting pages from the Koran, some burned and some unburned, and two U.S. soldiers called for me to give the pages to them,” Nabi said in a phone interview. “I told them, ‘Even if you kill me, I won’t give them to you,’” Nabi said.
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