WASHINGTON — The pastor of a Florida church announced Thursday he is calling off his plans to burn copies of the Quran on Saturday -- the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rev. Terry Jones' announcement that he was canceling the event came shortly after Defense Secretary Robert Gates phoned him from the Pentagon and told him that the event would put American soldiers at risk in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pentagon officials confirmed the phone call and said Gates placed it at about 4 p.m. Eastern time.
"Secretary Gates reached out to Pastor Jones this afternoon," Gates' press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said. "They had a very brief phone conversation during which the Secretary expressed his grave concern that going forward with the Quran burning would put at risk the lives of our forces around the world, especially those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he urged the pastor not to proceed with it."
Morrell would not say if the White House asked Gates to make the call or whether Jones told him in that phone call that he planned to call off the event. Although there were concerns that making such a call would lead to copycats seeking a call from top administration officials, the secretary felt that "if that phone call could save the life of one man or woman in uniform, that call was worth placing," Morrell said.
Hours earlier, President Barack Obama urged the pastor to cancel his plans, saying they would provide a recruiting "bonanza" for al Qaida.
The cancellation capped a week of escalating pressure from the Obama administration that began on Monday when Army Gen. David Petraeus , the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the demonstration would increase the risk for U.S. troops there.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday cabled U.S. ambassadors around the world with instructions to denounce the demonstration, and the State Department warned Americans overseas that the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations was high in response to Jones' plans. Earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki told the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad that the Obama administration needed to do all it could to "prevent" the Quran burning from taking place.
Jones said on CNN Thursday afternoon that instead of burning copies of the Quran on Saturday, he will fly to New York City to meet with Muslim leaders who had hoped to build a mosque near the site of Ground Zero.
``If they were willing to move that we would consider that a sign from God,'' Jones said.
Jones worked out the meeting with the help of Imam Muhammad Musri of Islamic Society of Central Florida, who spoke in Gainesville after Jones.
``I want to thank him and his church for making the decision today and to bring to a peaceful end what would have been a spectacle,'' said Musri, who said he will accompany Jones on his trip to New York.
``The placement of a mosque near the Ground Zero location it has been a provocation for many people to be violent against mosques across the nation,'' Musri said.
Obama said in an interview on ABC's ``Good Morning America,'' that the pastor's plan would help U.S. enemies, calling it a ``a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida.''
``I just want him to understand this stunt he's talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform,'' Obama said.