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Friday, April 20, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Photos show U.S. soldiers desecrating Afghan corpses

By David Zucchino and Laura King
Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — From the White House to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, American officials rushed to distance themselves from the actions of U.S. soldiers who posed for photographs next to corpses and body parts of Afghan insurgents.

Two photos of incidents from a 2010 deployment were published Wednesday by the Los Angeles Times. In one, the hand of a corpse is propped on the shoulder of a paratrooper. In another, the disembodied legs of a suicide bomber are displayed by grinning soldiers and Afghan police.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apologized for the photographs, saying the behavior depicted in the photos "absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values. This is not who we are. ... If rules and regulations were found to have been violated, then those individuals will be held accountable."

The images also add to a troubling list of cases — including Marines videotaped urinating on Taliban corpses, the burning of Qurans and the massacre of villagers by a lone Army sergeant — that have cast U.S. soldiers in the harshest possible light before the Afghan public.

White House press secretary Jay Carney called the soldiers' behavior "reprehensible," and said President Obama wanted a full investigation.

The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John Allen, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who were alerted that the photos were coming, condemned the actions even before the photos were published online. Allen said U.S. officials were working with Afghan and international forces "to resolve any issues related to improper treatment of remains." Crocker called the actions of soldiers in the photos "morally repugnant."

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the problems underscored the need to transfer responsibility for security to Afghan forces as quickly as possible.

"Our presence by its very nature creates tension between us and the local population," Smith told The Washington Post on Wednesday. "Past a certain point, a foreign presence is as destabilizing as it is stabilizing, and that's what these incidents are pointing out."

Pentagon and White House officials expressed disappointment the photos had been made public. The Pentagon had asked the Times not to publish the photos, citing fears that they would trigger a backlash against U.S. forces. The Times did not release the photos to other media.

Speaking to reporters at a meeting of NATO allies in Brussels, Panetta said:

"This is war. And I know that war is ugly and violent. And I know that young people sometimes caught up in the moment make some very foolish decisions. I am not excusing that behavior. But neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people or to our relationship with the Afghan people."

Times Editor Davan Maharaj said the newspaper had considered a Pentagon appeal to delay publication, and decided to hold off for more than 72 hours until military officials said they had taken security precautions against any retaliation.

"At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions," Maharaj said in an online discussion Wednesday. "We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan."

After the newspaper provided several photos to military officials last month, the Army began an investigation, saying the soldiers' actions violated Army standards. The photos were among 18 images of soldiers posing with corpses or body parts. They were provided to the Times by a soldier who served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2010.

The soldier who provided the photos said he and others in an 82nd Airborne brigade were concerned about a lack of discipline, leadership and security that he said compromised soldiers' safety — citing the photos as an example. He expressed the hope that publication would help ensure that alleged security shortcomings at two U.S. bases in Afghanistan in 2010 were not repeated.

The brigade, under new command but with some of the same paratroopers who served on a yearlong deployment in 2010, began another tour in Afghanistan in February.

There were no immediate reports of violence in Afghanistan in response to the photos. Many Afghans, especially in rural areas, do not have Internet access or electricity. The country's main evening news broadcasts did not show the photos.

Suicide bombers and insurgents who plant roadside bombs are widely despised by Afghans. Civilians are routinely killed or maimed by insurgents who detonate suicide vests or set out homemade bombs that kill indiscriminately.

Still, the taboo against desecration of the dead is strong in this religiously conservative country.

"We condemn Americans posing with dead bodies or body parts," said Najla Dehqan Nezhad, a member of parliament from the province of Herat.

Information from The Washington Post and The New York Times is included.


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