KABUL, Afghanistan – Islamic clerics expressed outrage Thursday at television footage that purportedly shows U.S. soldiers burning the bodies of two dead Taliban (search) fighters to taunt other militants and warned of a possible violent anti-American backlash.
President Hamid Karzai (search) condemned the alleged desecration and ordered an inquiry. The operational commander of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which launched its own criminal probe, said the alleged act, if true, was "repugnant."
Worried about the potential for anti-American feelings over the incident, the State Department said it instructed U.S. embassies around the globe to tell local governments that the reported abuse did not reflect American values.
Cremating bodies is banned under Islam, and one Muslim leader in Afghanistan compared the video to photographs of U.S. troops abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib (search) prison.
"Abu Ghraib ruined the reputation of the Americans in Iraq and to me this is even worse," said Faiz Mohammed, a top cleric in northern Kunduz province. "This is against Islam. Afghans will be shocked by this news. It is so humiliating. There will be very, very dangerous consequences from this."
Anger also was evident in the streets.
"If they continue to carry out such actions against us, our people will change their policy and react with the same policy against them," said Mehrajuddin, a resident of Kabul, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
Another man in the capital, Zahidullah, said the reported abuse was like atrocities committed by Soviet troops, who were driven out of Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade of occupation. He warned that the same could happen to American forces.
"Their future will be like the Russians," Zahidullah said.
In Washington, the U.S. government also condemned the alleged incident.
The allegation was "very serious" and "very troubling," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. His comment came after the department said U.S. embassies had been told to inform foreigners that abuse of remains "is not reflective of our values."
The move suggested U.S. worries about an anti-American uproar like Afghan riots in May that erupted after Newsweek said U.S. soldiers at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility desecrated Islam's holy book, the Koran. Newsweek later retracted the story.
The alleged body burning comes as the U.S. military is struggling to bolster its image in Afghanistan amid charges by Karzai of heavy-handed tactics in fighting the Taliban.
Australia's SBS television network broadcast the video purportedly showing soldiers burning the bodies of two suspected Taliban fighters in hills outside Gonbaz village in the southern Shah Wali Kot district — an area plagued by Taliban activity and considered by the local security forces as too dangerous to venture into unless accompanied by U.S. troops.
The network said the video was taken by a freelance journalist, Stephen Dupont. Dupont, who told The Associated Press that he was embedded with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, said the burnings happened Oct. 1.
He told SBS that soldiers in a U.S. Army psychological operations unit later broadcast taunting messages targeting the village, which was believed to be harboring Taliban fighters.
"They deliberately wanted to incite that much anger from the Taliban so the Taliban could attack them. ... That's the only way they can find them," Dupont said.
The video did not show those messages being broadcast, although it showed some military vehicles fitted with speakers and playing loud music.
According to a transcript released by SBS, the messages called the Taliban "cowardly dogs."
"You are too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies," said one message, according to the transcript.
Dupont told the AP the messages were broadcast in the local dialect but were translated into English for him by members of the Army unit. He declined to provide further information.
The U.S. military said the Army Criminal Investigation Command was looking into the matter.
"This alleged action is repugnant to our common values," Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya said from the U.S. base at Bagram. "This command takes all allegations of misconduct or inappropriate behavior seriously and has directed an investigation into circumstances surrounding this allegation."
A U.S. military spokeswoman, Sgt. Marina Evans, said investigators would check whether the purported act violated the Geneva Convention, which says the dead must be "honorably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged."
The Afghan Defense Ministry launched its own investigation, Karzai's spokesman, Karim Rahimi, said.
"We strongly condemn any disrespect to human bodies regardless of whether they are those of enemies or friends," he told the AP.