Desecration video - 2 marines identified
Washington - Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has promised Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai a full investigation of an internet video that purports to depict four US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters - a video both men condemned on Thursday as deplorable.
At least two of the four men have been identified as Marines based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said a Marine official, speaking on condition of anonymity because there is an active criminal investigation of the incident.
In a public statement, Panetta said such behaviour is "entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military" and that those responsible will be held accountable.
The video, posted on the internet, shows men in Marine combat gear standing in a semi-circle over three bodies. It's not clear whether the dead were Taliban or civilians or someone else. The title on the posting called them Taliban insurgents and said the men were from Camp Lejeune.
Officials did not officially verify the video's origin or authenticity but had no evidence to doubt what it was.
"It clearly appears to be to us what it appears to be to you - troops urinating on corpses," Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Thursday.
The two men who have been identified were members of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, based at Camp Lejeune, the main Marine base on the East Coast, said the official speaking anonymously.
Some of the four are no longer in that battalion, which returned from Afghanistan in late 2011, said the official, who gave no other information about them.
The video was roundly denounced in the US and Afghanistan alike.
Karzai called it "completely inhumane". The Afghan defence ministry called it "shocking". And the Taliban issued a statement accusing US forces of committing numerous "indignities" against the Afghan people.
"First they killed the Afghans with mortars, and they then urinated on their bodies," Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said of what is shown in the video. "We strongly condemn this inhumane action by the wild American soldiers."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "total dismay" at the video and said it was "absolutely inconsistent with the standards of behaviour that the vast majority of Marines hold themselves to".
Panetta, who phoned Karzai to discuss the incident, said the actions in the video, if confirmed, were inexcusable.
"I have seen the footage, and I find the behaviour 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 video came to light 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 pre-eminence in Afghanistan.
The US 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 Taliban political office to oversee talks.
One of the largest obstacles to peace discussions has been widespread Afghan contempt for US military tactics. Opposition to the US and Nato military presence in Afghanistan usually centres on civilian casualties from military engagement, although the vast majority of those deaths are caused by the insurgents.
The video is likely to resonate with those opposed to the US presence and to peace with the US-backed Karzai government.
Variety of investigations
US officials seemed to have ordered a variety of investigations:
- Panetta said he had ordered the Marine Corps and Marine General John Allen, the top commander of the Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, to fully investigate.
- In a written statement, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, said he requested on Wednesday evening that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigate, and that the Marines would, separately, do their own internal investigation.
"The Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved. We remain fully committed to upholding the Geneva Convention, the Laws of War, and our own core values," Amos said.
The Nato-led security force in Afghanistan released a statement on Thursday saying, "This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces."
The actions "appear to have been conducted by a small group of US individuals, who apparently are no longer serving in Afghanistan", the International Security Assistance Force said.
The statement did not identify the personnel or explain why the ISAF thought they had left the country.
Desecration of the dead
A spokesperson at Camp Lejeune would not confirm reports that the Marines were based there. "We have had elements of that unit that have deployed to Afghanistan and have returned.
However, we have not yet confirmed if anyone in the video is from that unit, or whether they are attached to a unit from Lejeune," said Scott Sasser.
Pentagon officials said the criminal investigation would likely look into whether the Marines violated laws of war, which include prohibitions against photographing bodies and detainees and a range of other rules.
Mujahid urged the UN and other international groups to end such actions by US troops. On Wednesday, the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, protested the video in a letter to Panetta.
"We condemn this apparent desecration of the dead as a violation of our nation's military regulations and of international laws of war prohibiting such disgusting and immoral actions," the group wrote.
"If verified as authentic, the video shows behaviour that is totally unbecoming of American military personnel and that could ultimately endanger other soldiers and civilians," the letter said.