- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States apologized Tuesday for the burning of Muslim holy books that had been pulled from the shelves of a detention center library adjoining a major base in eastern Afghanistan because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions.

The White House echoed military officials in saying that the burning of Qurans and other Islamic reading material that had been tossed in a pile of garbage was an accident.

But more than 2,000 Afghans outside Bagram Airfield protested the incident, which stoked rising anti-foreign sentiment and fueled Afghan claims that foreign troops disrespect their culture and Islamic religion even as the Americans and other NATO forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Demonstrators who gathered outside Bagram, one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan, shouted, “Die, die, foreigners!” Some fired rifles into the air. Others threw rocks at the gate of the base and set tires on fire.

U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the books had been mistakenly given to troops to be burned at a garbage pit at Bagram, a sprawling U.S. military base north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials,” Gen. Allen said. “It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened.”

The Quran is the most sacred object in the daily lives of Muslims, and burning it is considered an offense against God. The Quran is so important in the faith that Islamic teaching spells out how it should be handled, including directing anyone who touches it to be in a state of ritual purity. Muslims can only dispose of Qurans in very specific ways, including burning or burying those that have been damaged or corrupted to prevent God’s word from being defiled.

A Western military official with knowledge of the incident said it appeared that the Qurans and other Islamic readings in the library were being used to fuel extremism and that detainees at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram, were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The military official said that several hundred Islamic publications, including Qurans, were removed from the library. Some of the publications had extremist content; others had extremist messages written on their pages by detainees, the official said. The official said the documents were charred and burned, but none of them were destroyed.

“We will look into the reason those materials were gathered,” Gen. Allen said. “We will look into the manner in which the decision was made to dispose of them in this manner.”

Gen. Allen issued a new directive ordering all coalition forces in Afghanistan to complete training in the proper handling of religious materials no later than March 3. The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage, he said.

The White House also apologized, with press secretary Jay Carney saying it was a “deeply unfortunate incident” that doesn’t reflect the respect the U.S. military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people. Mr. Carney did not address details about what occurred.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta added his voice, saying he disapproved of the conduct. He promised to review the results of the coalition’s investigation to ensure that all steps are taken to prevent it from happening again.

In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident and appointed a delegation to investigate. He said initial reports were that four Qurans were burned.

Early Tuesday, as word of the incident spread, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the base in Parwan province. As the crowd grew, so did the outrage.

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