KABUL, Afghanistan – A series of mistakes led to the burning of Korans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan and at least five American military personnel involved may face a disciplinary review over the issue, a Western official said on Saturday.
The official said a joint investigation by senior Afghan and U.S. military officials had convinced them that there was no intent to desecrate the Korans and other religious texts.
The Feb. 20 incident touched off a weeklong series of deadly riots that killed more than 30 Afghans, as well as six U.S. troops who were fatally shot by Afghan security forces or militants disguised in their uniforms. It also brought relations between the U.S.-led military coalition and the Afghan government to an all-time low and spurred the most serious wave of anti-American and foreign sentiment across the country during the 10-year war.
President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials apologized and said the burning was an accident. But the apologies failed to quell the anger, although Muslim protests over the burnings have now ebbed.
The Western official, who has knowledge of the investigation, said it could lead to a disciplinary review of five U.S. military personnel involved. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Full details of the incident are expected to be included in a joint Afghan-U.S. probe that is still under legal review by the military. It release date is unclear. A more formal U.S. military investigation is still weeks away from completion.
If any action is taken against American troops involved, it would have come under the U.S. military justice system, officials with the international coalition have said.
Afghanistan's top religious leaders demanded on Friday that those involved be put on public trial and be punished. In a statement issued after they presented the conclusion of their own investigation to President Hamid Karzai, the clerics strongly condemned the incident and blamed it on poor administration of the detention facility where the burnings happened.
"This is an unforgivable act. It's antihuman," they said. "it will certainly not going to be forgiven by apologies, the responsible parties should be prosecuted in an open trial and they should be punished."
The statement said it would back Karzai's call for those involved to be punished. It was unclear if Karzai would accept the findings of a clerical council, which carried out its own separate probe into the Koran burnings, as final or would take the results of the joint investigation into consideration.
The religious leaders also called on the U.S. to end night searches and hand over its prisons, saying that if Afghans had been in charge, the Muslim holy books would never have been burned at Bagram Air Field, near the capital Kabul.
Control over detainees and night raids are the two most contentious issues in a strategic partnership document that Washington and Kabul are negotiating.
The council statement was a boost for Karzai as he seeks to strengthen his negotiating position in talks with the United States over the agreement. The pact is expected to provide for several thousand U.S. troops to stay in the country to train Afghan forces and help with counterterrorism operations. It will outline the legal status of those forces in Afghanistan, their operating rules and where they will be based.
A major stumbling point arose when Karzai demanded control over detainees and an end to the unpopular night raids by U.S. troops as a condition of signing the pact. The U.S. has said that night raids are effective in capturing insurgents. The Obama administration also has said that the Afghan judicial system is not yet capable of taking over responsibility for dangerous battlefield detainees.
The Koran incident started almost two weeks ago, when the books and other Islamic texts that U.S. military officials said had extremist inscriptions were removed from the library at the Parwan Detention Facility and then taken to the burn pit at the adjoining Bagram Air Field.
A NATO military official said last week that it appeared detainees were exchanging messages by making notations in the texts. The Western official confirmed reports that after the writings were discovered, two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to go through the materials at the library and that 1,652 items were removed.
The items, which included the Korans, were placed in boxes and the Western official confirmed that a decision was taken to dispose of them because of a lack of storage space and because of the notes scribbled in them.
At some point a group of soldiers on a work detail came and removed the books to throw them away. The Western official told The Associated Press on Saturday the three soldiers on the garbage detail had no idea what they were carrying to the burn pit.
The Afghan workers then realized what was being burned and tried to extinguish the flames, some burned their fingers trying to salvage the books. Afghan government officials said initial reports indicated four Koran texts were burned.