- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Sunni preachers yesterday denounced the shooting of a Koran, Islam’s holy book, by a U.S. sniper in Iraq after a series of apologies by military commanders and President Bush.

The use of Islam’s holy book for target practice has triggered an angry response in Iraq and protests in Afghanistan as U.S.-led forces work to maintain their alliance with Sunni Arabs who have turned against al Qaeda in Iraq.

“The enemies of Islam have launched their campaign against Islam and the prophet Muhammad and recently against the holy Koran,” said Sheik Omar Mohammed during his sermon at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad.

“A bullet that might have shot at an Iraqi believer, was directed toward the holy Koran instead,” Sheik Mohammed said. “Do not think this is a defeat for us, but it will create enthusiasm to stand up more for this religion.”

The U.S. military said last Sunday it had disciplined the sniper and removed him from Iraq after he was found to have used the Koran for target practice May 9. Iraqi police found the bullet-riddled book two days later on the field of a firing range in a predominantly Sunni area west of Baghdad.

Mr. Bush apologized to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the incident after several U.S. military officials tried to soothe anger over the shooting, particularly among Sunni Arabs who have become key allies in the fight against insurgents.

A NATO soldier and two civilians were killed Thursday during a violent demonstration in western Afghanistan over the incident. But there has been relatively little protest in Muslim countries despite fears of a repeat of the worldwide violence sparked by similar perceived insults against Islam, including prophet Muhammad cartoons published in Denmark.

The imam of Abu Hanifa, the main Sunni mosque in Baghdad, also condemned the shooting and criticized the leaders of fellow Muslim states for not speaking out against it.

“We Muslims condemn the act committed by this malicious person and at the same time we express our regret that Muslim leaders all over the world did not condemn this crime … it indicates their weakness and cowardliness,” Sheik Dawood al-Alusi said.

Separately, the U.S. military said more than 140 suspected insurgents surrendered to authorities after the resolution of a standoff involving three tribal leaders in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. American officials said it was a significant step toward reconciliation in the area that has been one of the hardest to control in Iraq.

The surrenders came after a series of raids that resulted in the deaths of three individuals, the military statement said. More details were not immediately available, but the area has seen significant fighting between U.S.-Iraqi forces and al Qaeda in Iraq.

Two bombings also struck the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, a city 40 miles west of Baghdad that has seen a sharp decline in violence since local Sunni leaders joined forces with the Americans against al Qaeda in Iraq.

Associated Press writer Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.