BAGHDAD – U.S. President George W. Bush apologized to Iraq's prime minister for an American sniper's use of a copy of the Koran for target practice.
It was the highest level in a string of statements by U.S. officials trying to soothe anger over the shooting of Islam's holy book, particularly among Sunni Arabs who have become key allies in the fight against insurgents.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, told Bush of the "disappointment and anger of the people and government of Iraq over the soldier's disgraceful action," according to a statement from his office.
The U.S. military said Sunday it had disciplined the sniper and removed him from Iraq after he was found to have used Islam's holy book for target practice May 9 in a predominantly Sunni area west of Baghdad. The copy of the Koran was found two days later by Iraqis on a firing range in Radwaniyah with 14 bullet holes in it and graffiti written on its pages, tribal leaders said.
Similar perceived insults against Islam have sparked violent protests and the Americans appeared eager to contain the outrage.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush spoke to al-Maliki about the Koran shooting incident during a regularly scheduled videoconference on Monday.
She said Bush expressed his "serious concern" and raised the issue of the soldier using a Koran "absolutely inappropriately."
He told the prime minister that the matter was being taken seriously and stressed that the soldier had been reprimanded and removed from Iraq, Perino said.
"He apologized for that in the sense that he said that we take it very seriously. We are concerned about the reaction. We wanted them to know that the president knew that this was wrong," she added.
The statement came after similar moves by the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq and an elaborate formal apology ceremony by the commander of American forces in Baghdad.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the Baghdad commander, met with tribal leaders in Radwaniyah to apologize while another American officer kissed a copy of the Koran before presenting it to the chiefs.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III also paid individual visits Monday to al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, both Sunni Arabs.
Al-Hashemi, the top Sunni Arab in the government, told Austin that "the feelings of bitterness and anger cannot be eased unless there is a deterrent punishment and real guarantees" such an incident won't be repeated, according to a statement from his office.
Al-Hashemi expressed his appreciation for the visit but asked for a written apology from the U.S. military.
The vice president's Iraqi Islamic Party also issued a tough statement saying that an apology alone was not enough and the U.S. military should impose the "severest punishment" on the soldier to ensure such an act doesn't happen again.
Austin underlined in all three meetings that "the soldier had in fact been removed from Iraq. He assured them that the matter was serious and that we hold our soldiers accountable for their actions," the U.S. military said.
Al-Maliki's office said Bush told the prime minister that the sniper would face trial, but that could not immediately be confirmed.
Separately, the statement said an Iraqi Cabinet meeting Tuesday called for the "severest" punishment against the sniper and warned of "grave consequences" if similarly offensive actions were committed in the future.
It also called on commanders of U.S.-led foreign troops in Iraq to educate their soldiers on the need to respect the religious beliefs of Iraqis.
On Tuesday, Khalaf al-Elyan, a senior Sunni Arab lawmaker, said the sniper must stand trial, preferably in Baghdad. "It is a dangerous case, we had been silent and accepted the killing of our sons, the destruction of our homes and the theft of our money but we do not accept insults to the holy Koran," he told a news conference.
Al-Elyan's party, the National Dialogue Council, is one of three making up the Iraqi Accordance Front, parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc.