9 die in 2nd day of Afghan protests over Quran burnings

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2012 

KABUL, Afghanistan — At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded Wednesday in the second day of anti-American protests in Afghanistan after U.S. personnel burned Qurans and other Islamic material at Bagram air base, officials said.

Six protesters were killed and 13 wounded in Parwan province, north of Kabul, where Bagram is, said Shah Wali Shahed, the province's deputy governor.

Shahed said police were forced to open fire when protesters attacked a district police headquarters and tried to storm the district chief's office. He said that some in the crowd had weapons, and it wasn't clear who'd fired first.

One person was killed and 10 wounded outside Camp Phoenix, one of the few U.S.-led coalition bases in the capital, when guards fired on several hundred Afghans who were throwing stones and burning tires.

Protesters in nearby streets chanted "death to America" and "death to America's allies," and blocked the main road between Kabul and Pakistan for hours.

"America destroyed our country. America burned our holy book," one protester, Ahmad Milad, told McClatchy.

Protests also swept the eastern city of Jalalabad, where demonstrators burned 11 fuel tankers bound for a coalition base. One person was killed there. Another person was killed in Logar province, south of Kabul, the Interior Ministry said.

The protests took place despite fulsome apologies Tuesday by Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who condemned the Quran burning "in the strongest possible terms."

Coalition leaders spent Wednesday trying to calm the outcry over the incident. They conceded that the incident had "grave implications" for U.S.-Afghan relations and the broader war effort.

Ash Carter, the U.S. deputy secretary of defense, who was in Afghanistan on a previously scheduled visit, personally apologized to several senior Afghan officials Wednesday, including President Hamid Karzai, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and several members of Parliament, the Pentagon said in a statement.

What precisely happened to the Qurans is still unclear. Carter acknowledged in his apology that the books had been burned, but a statement on the findings of a joint U.S-Afghan investigation into the incident wasn't expected to be released until Thursday.

Among the questions the investigation will attempt to answer is whether a commander ordered the Qurans destoyed because inmates were placing messages in them to one another, said Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a German spokesman for the coalition.

"We haven't got any proof of that yet, and that is a vital part of the investigation that is ongoing," Jacobson said.

Jacobson said that the Qurans were never purposely placed in a fire pit but were part of a collection of materials that had been removed from the library at the air base's prison because of extremist messages found within them.

Afghan laborers discovered charred copies of the Quran in the pit and removed them.

"Material was inadvertently given to troops for burning. The decision to burn this material had nothing to do with it being religious in nature or related to Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error," Jacobson said.

Throughout the day, the military stressed that American troops respected local customs, but that did little to assuage the anger among Afghans. U.S. officials acknowledged that the damage may be irreparable. Even as Jacobson assured Afghans of a thorough investigation, he said the coalition was aware that the incident had created "considerable anger."

Enayatullah Baleegh, a professor of Shariah law at Kabul University, said it wasn't the first time that U.S. personnel had insulted Islam or the Quran. They apologized each time, Baleegh said, but such incidents were unacceptable.

"Our people are in love with the Quran and with Islam, and we will die for them," Baleegh said.

(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Youssef reported from Washington.)

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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Afghanistan and Pakistan page.

McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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