REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A U.S. military investigation into the burning of the Muslim holy book in a trash pit in Afghanistan last month found that several enlisted soldiers had misinterpreted an order to dispose of the Korans, two officials familiar with the findings said Friday.
The investigation found that five U.S. soldiers were responsible for confiscating the Korans and other religious materials from a U.S.-run detention facility near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, and dumping them in a pit used to incinerate trash.
News of the incident sparked attacks that killed six Americans and riots that left more than 30 people dead. Hundreds of Western military and civilian advisors working at Afghan government offices were withdrawn by embassies and NATO commanders as the crisis grew.
U.S. officials said several of the soldiers, who have not been publicly identified, are likely to face disciplinary proceedings. Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has not yet made a decision on punishment, the officials said.
Allen was briefed on the investigation late this week, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the findings, which have not been made public.
The riots and violence appear spent for now. Friday prayers, the most important religious event of the Muslim week, passed without more protests breaking out.
The military investigation largely supports official U.S. claims that the burnings were inadvertent.
The officials said soldiers had confiscated religious materials because they believed the books were being used to pass written messages among prisoners. The books circulated from prisoner to prisoner as part of the prison’s lending library.
The books were initially put in a storage area, but they were removed a few days later after enlisted soldiers were told to dispose of them. They were not told to burn the books, although it’s unclear how they were supposed to dispose of them.
“There were crossed wires,” said one official familiar with the investigation. “There’s no indication this was a deliberate attempt to defile religious materials.”
Afghan workers at the burn pit spotted several Korans in the flames and “started getting riled up” over the desecration of the holy book, another official said. The workers pulled several charred Korans from the fire and told other Afghans, which led to widespread outrage.
In Kabul, there were signs that any perceived failure to sufficiently punish those responsible could lead to a new round of angry protests.
A group of politically powerful Muslim clerics met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and demanded a public trial in an Afghan court of the U.S. troops involved, Karzai’s office said.
The clerics denounced the Koran burning as an “inhumane, savage act” and said no apology would suffice, the presidential palace said.
In releasing the clerics’ statement, Karzai appeared to be seeking leverage for his demand that the detention facility at Bagram be handed over to Afghan control. His office quoted the clerics as demanding “the closure of prisons run by foreigners.”
— David Cloud in Washington and Laura King in Kabul
Photo: Afghans burn an effigy of President Obama during an anti-U.S. protest east of Kabul on Feb 24. Credit: Rahmat Gul / Associated Press