Panetta assures Afghans of full probe of Marines

WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders scrambled Thursday to contain damage from an Internet video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses — an act that appears to violate international laws of warfare and put further strains U.S.-Afghan relations.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to offer assurances of a full investigation and the top Marine general promised an internal probe as well as a criminal one. Investigators moved quickly to identify some of those involved, confirming they were members of a sniper unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who had served in Afghanistan last year.

As the video spread across the Internet in postings and re-postings, U.S. officials joined with Afghans in calling it shocking, deplorable, inhumane and a breach of military standards of conduct. It shows men in Marine combat gear standing in a semi-circle urinating on the bodies of three men in standard Afghan clothing, one whose chest was covered in blood.

It’s not certain whether the dead were Taliban fighters, civilians or someone else.

The incident will likely further hurt U.S. ties with Karzai’s government and complicate negotiations over a strategic partnership arrangement meant to govern the presence of U.S. troops and advisers in Afghanistan after most international combat troops withdraw by the end of 2014.

It also comes at a delicate time in relations among the United States, Afghanistan’s elected government and the Taliban insurgency fighting for both territorial control and cultural and religious preeminence in Afghanistan. The U.S. is trying to foster peace talks between the Karzai government and the Pakistan-based Taliban high command, and has made unprecedented offers to build trust with the insurgents, including the planned opening of a political office to oversee talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.

Anti-American sentiment already is on the rise in Afghanistan, especially among Afghans who have not seen improvements to their daily lives despite billions of dollars in international aid. Afghans also have deplored the accidental killing of civilians during NATO airstrikes and argue that foreign troops have culturally offended the Afghan people, mostly when it comes to activities involving women and the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

Pentagon officials said the criminal investigation would likely look into whether the Marines violated laws of war, which include prohibitions against photographing or mishandling bodies and detainees. It also appeared to violate the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs conduct. Thus, some or all of the four Marines could face a military court martial or other disciplinary action.

Karzai called the video “completely inhumane.” The Afghan Defense Ministry called it “shocking.” And the Taliban issued a statement accusing U.S. forces of committing numerous “indignities” against the Afghan people.

U.S. officials said a military criminal investigation would be led by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the law enforcement arm of the Navy. The Marines will do their own internal investigation.

Panetta said the actions depicted in the brief video were inexcusable.

“I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” Panetta’s statement said. “Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he was deeply disturbed by the video and worried that it would erode the reputation of the entire military, not just the Marine Corps.

A veterans group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted the video was the act of a small number of Marines and said it did not reflect the behavior of the millions who have served honorably.

“Our troops and veterans are already facing enormous challenges and stereotypes both overseas and at home, and we encourage the public and media worldwide to refrain from rushing to stereotypes,” the group said in a statement.

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