An investigation into the burning of Muslim holy books at a U.S. military base has found it was a mistake involving at least five Americans who may face a disciplinary review but Afghan investigators claimed it was an intentional desecration.
The conflicting accounts highlight rising tensions between the two countries despite apologies by President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials following the Feb. 20 discovery of charred Qurans and other religious literature in a burn pit at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.
Anger over the burnings already has led to the deaths of more than 30 Afghans during violent protests as well as six U.S. soldiers who were shot and killed by rogue Afghan security forces.
A Western official told The Associated Press Saturday that preliminary findings from a joint investigation by senior Afghan and U.S. military officials that was ordered by Marine Gen. John Allen has convinced them that although mistakes were made, there was no intent to desecrate the Qurans or other material.
The official, who has knowledge of the investigation but spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said it could lead to a disciplinary review of at least five U.S. military personnel involved. The official did not elaborate, and it was unclear what such a review could recommend.
The controversy began when Qurans and other Islamic texts were removed from the library at the Parwan Detention Facility, then taken to the burn pit at the adjoining Bagram Air Field.
The Western official confirmed earlier reports that extremist inscriptions were found inside the texts, including notations apparently scribbled by detainees exchanging messages. He said that after the writings were discovered, two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to go through the library materials, and 1,652 items were removed and placed in boxes.
A decision was made to dispose of the material because of a lack of storage space and the notes inside, but a group of three soldiers on a garbage detail removed the books before that could be done properly, the official said. He said the soldiers had no idea what they were throwing into the burn pit and insisted none of the material was destroyed before it was removed by Afghan workers.
However, Maulvi Khaliq Dad, a top Afghan religious leader who was on a different panel appointed by President Hamid Karzai to investigate the incident, claimed the burning was intentional.
Dad said U.S. officials informed Afghan authorities about their suspicions that notes inside the books were being used as a way for detainees to communicate with comrades outside the prison. The Americans believed that a bookseller, who had a contract to take care of the library, was acting as a mediator and told him not to show up for work on the day that two translators were scouring the materials.
The translators later told the Afghan delegation that U.S. officials had told them that the books pulled from the shelves were headed for storage.
According to Dad’s account, the books were kept in a place where refuse is picked up and taken to a garbage burn pit on the base. Afghan workers at the base noticed that they were religious books and notified an Afghan army commander who questioned U.S. troops about the books and was satisfied when he was told they would be stored somewhere safe.
But the Afghan workers later noticed the books had been set on fire. The workers and two Afghan officers rescued 216 books, including 48 Qurans, from being burned, Dad said. They were shouting and pulling the books from the burn pit, preventing the U.S. troops from throwing the remaining four cartons of books into the fire, he said.
“They lied to the Afghan workers and the Afghan National Army officers, telling them they were going to store the books in a container, then they went and burned the books. If it was not intentional, they would not have lied,” Dad said.
Dad also claimed the investigation had shown that some detainees had written their names, their father’s names, their inmate identification numbers and the date they were detained in some of the books that were not destroyed. Some of the books written in Arabic also had definitions of Arabic words scribbled in Dari or Pashto, the two Afghan languages.
“I didn’t see anything that suggested that messages were being exchanged between prisoners or with outsiders,” he said.
Full details of the incident are expected to be included in the joint Afghan-U.S. probe that is being reviewed by a coalition legal expert. A date for its release has not been set. A more formal U.S. military investigation is still weeks away from completion.
The Quran burnings have 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.
Karzai’s office said Saturday it had only seen the report drafted by the religious leaders and had not yet been given the joint report, so could not comment on it although the president has demanded that those involved be put on trial and punished.
“We are waiting for the result of the investigation by NATO, which will probably show who is involved in this and how many people are involved. After studying it we will announce our stance,” said presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi. “What the Afghan president has requested from U.S. officials and the U.S. military is a trial and punishment.”
Any action taken against American troops involved would have to come under the U.S. military justice system, officials with the international coalition have said.
Still, Karzai is likely to capitalize on the incident and use it as leverage in his government’s talks over a strategic partnership document that Washington and Kabul are negotiating ahead of a planned withdrawal of most foreign combat troops by the end of 2014. As part of the negotiations, Karzai wants the U.S. to hand over prisons and stop unpopular night raids against the homes of suspect Taliban commanders and fighters.