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Photos prompt condemnation

From the White House to the American Embassy in Kabul, American officials rushed to distance themselves from the actions of US 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.

US Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta apologised for the photographs, saying the behaviour 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.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the soldiers’ behaviour “reprehensible,” and said President Obama wanted a full investigation.

The NATO commander in Afghanistan, US Gen. John Allen, and American Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who were alerted that the photos were coming, condemned the actions even before the photos were published online. Allen said US 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.”

At the same time, Pentagon and White House officials expressed disappointment that 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 US forces.

Speaking to reporters during 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 behaviour. But neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people or to our relationship with the Afghan people.”

Davan Maharaj, editor of The Times, said the newspaper 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. There were no immediate reports of violence in Afghanistan in response to the photos. Many Afghans, especially those 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 home-made bombs that kill indiscriminately.

A recent United Natiosn report said the Taliban and other insurgent groups were responsible for 77 percent of fatal attacks against civilians last summer, most of them from suicide bombs or roadside explosives. 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 western province of Herat. Farhad Mohammed, a merchant in the southern city of Kandahar, said of the two-year-old photos: “Nothing has changed since then, and nothing will. Always it is a matter of disrespect.”

The Taliban made no initial statement, although the group generally exploits such incidents for propaganda purposes.

Two experts said the photos may have more effect on public opinion in the United States than in Afghanistan.

 

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