KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Four U.S. soldiers face disciplinary action for burning the bodies of two Taliban rebels, but they will not be charged with crimes because their actions were motivated by hygienic concerns, the military said Saturday.
The military started its inquiry into the incident last month after TV footage showed U.S. soldiers using the cremation to taunt other Islamic militants — an act that sparked outrage in Afghanistan.
Islam bans cremation, and the video images were compared here to photographs of U.S. troops abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
The U.S.-led coalition's operational commander, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, said two junior officers who ordered the bodies burned would be officially reprimanded for showing a lack of cultural and religious understanding, but he said the men were unaware that what they were doing was wrong.
Kamiya also said two noncommissioned officers would be reprimanded for using loudspeakers to taunt Taliban rebels believed to be lingering in a nearby village after a clash with the troops. The two men also would face nonjudicial punishments, which could include a loss of pay or demotion in rank.
"Our investigation found there was no intent to desecrate the remains, but only to dispose of them for hygienic reasons," Kamiya said.
He added that the broadcasts, while "designed to incite fleeing Taliban to fight," violated military policy.
The video footage threatens to undermine public support for the war against a stubborn insurgency four years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban's repressive regime in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hours after it was broadcast in Australia last month, American commanders promised a full investigation and vowed that anyone found guilty would be punished to the full extent of military law.
Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid, who attended the military's news conference in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said, "We have confidence in this investigation."
The footage shows about five soldiers in light-colored military fatigues, which did not have any distinguishing marks, standing near a bonfire in which two bodies were laid side by side.
Kamiya said the temperature at the time was 90, and the bodies had lain exposed on the ground for 24 hours and were rapidly decomposing.
"This posed an increasing health concern for our soldiers," Kamiya said. "The criminal investigation proved there was no violation of the rules of war."
The Geneva Convention forbids the burning of combatants except for hygienic purposes.
The bodies were found atop a hill following a firefight, and Kamiya said soldiers, intending to stay on the hill for two or three days for strategic reasons, believed other Taliban had fled into the village below.
Australia's SBS television, which first showed the videotape, said it was taken by a freelance journalist, Stephen Dupont, in hills outside Gonbaz village in the southern Shah Wali Kot district — an area where there is frequent Taliban activity.
Dupont told The Associated Press he took the footage while embedded with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered his own inquiry into the videotape. That probe has also been completed but officials say it is not clear when its findings will be released.
Though Afghan media have reported the alleged desecration, the videotape has not been broadcast here and there have been no protest rallies.
The last violent anti-American protests in Afghanistan were in May over a report by Newsweek — later retracted — that U.S. soldiers at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility abused Islam's holy book, the Quran.