WASHINGTON — A Pentagon investigation has found five soldiers responsible for burning copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, which set off a spate of anti-American protests and violence across Afghanistan, two U.S. military officials said Friday.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the findings hadn't been released publicly, didn't further identify the soldiers, and there was no indication that the investigation found that they violated military laws. However, the troops could face disciplinary action.
The Quran burnings have put the U.S. plan to withdraw from Afghanistan in jeopardy, triggering more deadly attacks by Afghan soldiers on their American counterparts and raising questions about the viability of the U.S.-led mission to work closely with Afghan forces and hand security responsibilities over to them.
Offering their fullest account to date of the incident, the U.S. officials said that enlisted soldiers were ordered last month to remove religious materials from a prison library at Bagram Air Base, outside of Kabul, in part because detainees were believed to be leaving messages to one another in them.
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At first the materials were placed in storage, the officials said. But soldiers later took the materials, including Qurans, to a fire pit and started to burn them Feb. 21. Local laborers discovered the Qurans in the pit and removed them, sparking outrage across the country after Afghans were shown holding up copies of the charred books outside the base.
The officials said that the soldiers had misunderstood orders when they placed Qurans in the fire pit to be destroyed. They had just been ordered to remove them from the library, not burn them, they said.
The preliminary findings were first reported Friday by The New York Times.
Investigators on Friday briefed the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, on their findings, and Pentagon officials have said they would brief reporters next week. However, some worry that providing more details of the incident could reignite another round of protests. While the U.S. military has called the burnings an accident, Afghans remain dubious.
On Friday, a council of senior Afghan clerics demanded that the U.S. personnel responsible for the incident be tried and punished.
"The council strongly condemns this crime and inhumane, savage act by American troops by desecrating holy books of the Quran," they said, according to a statement released by the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Shortly after U.S. officials admitted burning the Qurans, an Afghan soldier shot two U.S. troops inside the Afghan Interior Ministry building in Kabul, prompting Allen to recall all troops who were based inside ministries. On Thursday, just as some troops returned to the ministries, two more U.S. service members were killed by Afghan troops on a joint base in the southern province of Kandahar.
In all, Afghan security forces have fatally shot six U.S troops since Afghans learned of the burning. At least 30 Afghans have been killed in the related protests.
The incident also has ignited fears among U.S. troops, who privately say that Afghan attacks on international trainers could continue through the end of the war.
President Barack Obama apologized to Karzai, and top U.S. military commanders met with local leaders in an effort to quell the tensions. But many Afghans weren't appeased, saying that they couldn't believe the U.S. military could make such mistakes more than a decade into the war.
Afghan leaders were conducting their own investigation into their incident but it was unclear when they would release their findings.
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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.