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Seven Die in Afghan Protests at U.S. Troops Burning Koran

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg

Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Seven Afghans died amid gunfire and the U.S. embassy in Kabul halted travel by its staff during a second day of protests over the burning by U.S. troops of the Koran, the Islamic scripture, at their main base in Afghanistan.

Crowds of men turned violent, throwing stones and in some cases attacking offices or shops across Kabul and three nearby provinces of eastern Afghanistan, said local government spokesmen and residents reached by phone. In addition to the seven dead, 30 people were injured, according to a statement e-mailed by the Interior Ministry.

The U.S. embassy said in an e-mailed notice that it had “suspended all travel for embassy personnel in Kabul until further notice and ordered any personnel not at a secure compound to return to the embassy immediately.” The U.S. mission also halted staff members’ movements in the second-largest city, Kandahar, acting embassy spokesman Mark Thornburg said in a separate e-mail.

Protests erupted in the eastern city of Jalalabad and in Logar and Parwan provinces, which adjoin Kabul. They followed yesterday’s demonstration outside Bagram airbase in Parwan, where Afghans found that U.S. soldiers had included Korans among other books dumped and burned as refuse. Bagram is the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan.

While U.S. officials quickly apologized and the top U.S. military commander announced training for all troops in “the proper handling of religious materials,” the Koran burning has deepened damage to the international forces’ public image, Afghan and Muslim affairs analysts said in interviews.

Koran and Jesus

The U.S.-led force in Afghanistan and other westerners often underestimate the reverence of Afghans and other Muslims for the Koran, said Sultan Shahin, an Indian analyst who runs New Age Islam, a website on Muslim and interfaith affairs.

“Americans often suppose that the Koran, as a book, is analogous to the Christian Bible, but in fact Muslims’ reverence for the Koran is more like the reverence that Christians feel for the person of Jesus,” he said in a phone interview in New Delhi. “For Christians, the divine vehicle of God’s message is Jesus, while Muslims see their prophet as fully human and the divine gift is the book.”

The U.S. embassy and the American-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, used their websites and Twitter messages today to publicize apologies by U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “We honor and respect the religious practices of the Afghan people without exception,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters, citing a statement yesterday by Panetta.

Taliban Victory

The Taliban guerrillas fighting American forces “strongly condemn the U.S.’ violent action in dishonoring our holy book,” said the movement’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, in a phone interview. “These disbelievers have committed such acts several times in the past,” he said.

Despite the U.S. apologies, “this incident is a big victory for the Taliban because Afghans will believe what they say -- that the foreigners are here to dishonor our book and Islamic culture,” said Abdurrahim Muqdader, a tribal elder in Parwan province, where the Koran burning and the first protest occurred. He said the incident will increase the danger in coming days of Afghan troops or police attacking U.S. soldiers in revenge.

The Korans were damaged after soldiers culled them, with other books, from a library at a prison for alleged Taliban and allied Islamic militant fighters, an ISAF statement said. The volumes were thrown into a pile of debris for burning and pulled out by Afghan employees at the base.

Burned Pages

“I was collecting pages from the Koran, some burned and some unburned, and two U.S. soldiers called for me to give the pages to them,” one such employee, Muhammad Nabi, said in a phone interview. “I told them, ‘Even if you kill me, I won’t give them to you,’” Nabi said.

An Afghan policeman shot dead two U.S. soldiers in April amid four days of protests across Afghanistan sparked when a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, oversaw the burning of a Koran at his church. In that upheaval, Afghan rioters killed 24 people, including seven international employees of the United Nations in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Afghans protested again last month when a video was posted on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans who may have been Taliban guerrillas. Panetta and other American officials condemned that incident.

Afghan troops, police or security guards have killed about 70 troops or other personnel of the U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan in 46 attacks since 2007, according to U.S. Defense Department figures prepared for a Feb. 1 congressional hearing. The U.S. is training the Afghan forces to take over security duties as the Obama administration prepares to withdraw the main U.S. combat force from Afghanistan by 2014.

To contact the reporters on this story: Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul at enajafizada1@bloomberg.net; James Rupert in New Delhi at jrupert3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net; John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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