KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — At least five American military personnel could face a disciplinary review over the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in Afghanistan as conflicting accounts of what happened emerged Saturday, fueling more confusion over the incident that sparked six days of deadly riots across the nation.
A Western official told The Associated Press that a joint investigation by senior Afghan and U.S. military officials has convinced them that although mistakes were made, there was no intent to desecrate the Qurans and other Islamic religious texts.
The official, who has knowledge of the investigation, said it could lead to a disciplinary review of at least five U.S. military personnel involved. The official did not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case. It is unclear what such a review could recommend.
President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have apologized and said the Feb. 20 burning at a burn pit at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul was an accident. But the apologies failed to quell the anger, although protests over the burnings have now ebbed.
But Maulvi Khaliq Dad, a top Afghan religious leader who was on a different panel appointed by President Hamid Karzai to investigate the incident, claimed U.S. troops told Afghans at the base that the religious materials pulled from a detention center library were to be stored, but then they were sent for incineration.
"They are claiming that it was not intentional. Our investigative team says it was intentional," Dad said Saturday.
After Dad's panel presented its findings, Afghanistan's top religious leaders demanded on Friday that those involved be put on public trial and be punished, a position that Karzai backs.
The Quran burnings touched off deadly riots that killed more than 30 Afghans, as well as six U.S. troops who were fatally shot by Afghan security forces or militants disguised in their uniforms. It also 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.
"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."
Karzai is expected 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.
The pact is expected to provide for several thousand U.S. troops to stay in the country to train Afghan forces and help with counterterrorism operations. It will outline the legal status of those forces in Afghanistan, their operating rules and where they will be based.
Full details of the incident are expected to be included in the joint Afghan-U.S. probe that is still under legal review by the military. Its release date is unclear. A more formal U.S. military investigation is still weeks away from completion.
If any action is taken against American troops involved, it would have come under the U.S. military justice system, officials with the international coalition have said.
The incident started when the books and other Islamic texts that a U.S. military official said had extremist inscriptions were removed from the library at the Parwan Detention Facility and then taken to the burn pit at the adjoining Bagram Air Field.
The U.S. military official said last week that it appeared detainees were exchanging messages by making notations in the texts. The Western official confirmed reports that after the writings were discovered, two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to go through the materials at the library and that 1,652 items were removed.
The items, which included the Qurans, were placed in boxes and the Western official confirmed that a decision was taken to dispose of them because of a lack of storage space and because of the notes scribbled in them.
At some point a group of soldiers on a work detail came and removed the books to throw them away. The Western official told the AP the three soldiers on the garbage detail had no idea what they were carrying. Although some of the material was thrown into the burn pit before it was removed by Afghan workers, none of material was completely destroyed.
He said U.S. officials told them that they were suspicious about the notes inside the books and that they also suspected that a bookseller, who had a contract to take care of the library, was moving books containing messages in and out of the facility so that detainees could communicate with others outside the prison.
U.S. officials told the bookseller not to show up for work on the day that two translators were told to find books on the library shelves that were extremist in nature or had handwritten inscriptions inside, he said. He said the translators told the Afghan delegation that U.S. officials had told them that the books pulled from the shelves were headed for storage.
Dad, one of Afghan religious leaders on the Karzai-appointed panel, said the books were kept in a place where refuse is picked up and taken to a garbage burn pit on the base. When Afghan workers at the base noticed that they were religious books, they notified an Afghan army commander on the base. The commander questioned U.S. troops about the books and was told that they were going to be stored, he said. The commander was satisfied with that answer and left, Dad said.
A short time later, when the Afghan workers saw the books at the burn pit, they shouted and ran back to the Afghan commander. The workers and two Afghan officers rescued 216 of the books, including 48 Qurans, from being burned, Dad said. They were shouting and pulling the books from the burn pit so the U.S. troops didn't throw 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 and then they went and burned the books. If it was not intentional, they would not have lied," Dad said.
During the investigation, Dad said the team examined some of the books that were not destroyed. In the ones he saw, some detainees had written their name, their father's name, their inmate identification numbers and the date they were detained. Some of the books written in Arabic 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.
Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Kabul.