Army Examines Alleged Abuse of Taliban Fighters

The U.S. military in Afghanistan is investigating claims that U.S. soldiers desecrated the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters and mocked Islamic customs in an effort to taunt insurgents. U.S. officials worry the reports could provoke a backlash against Americans in Muslim countries.

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The US military in Afghanistan says it's investigating allegations that American soldiers desecrated the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters. A videotape also appears to show the men mocking Islamic customs in an effort to taunt other guerrillas into a fight. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, the US is worried that the tape could provoke a backlash against Americans in Muslim countries around the world.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The allegations surfaced in a TV program aired by Australia's SBS Television Network. It contained video that showed American soldiers burning the bodies of two suspected Taliban fighters in a remote mountainous area in southern Afghanistan. Stephen Dupont, the journalist who shot the video, said he was embedded with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, and that the men were following orders.

Mr. STEPHEN DUPONT (Journalist): Basically, you know, we'd been told to burn the bodies because the bodies have been here for 24 hours and they're starting to stink. So for hygiene purposes, this is what we're going to do.

FLINTOFF: Later, Dupont said some soldiers from a psychological operations unit, psyops, positioned the bodies so they were facing toward Mecca and used loudspeakers to broadcast taunting messages in the direction of a nearby village, which was believed to be harboring Taliban fighters. One soldier shown in the video translated the message this way: `Attention, Taliban: You are all cowardly dogs. You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You're too scared to come down and retrieve their bodies. This just proves that you're the lady-boys we always believed you to be.'

Ibrahim Hooper is the communications director for CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says the actions of the psyops team were a deliberate effort to inflame Muslim sensibilities.

Mr. IBRAHIM HOOPER (Communications Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations): Muslims, when you bury the dead, you position them--the bodies facing Mecca. And also, cremation is prohibited by Islamic tradition. So to have American military personnel mocking these religious traditions and sensitivities sends a very negative message to Muslims in Afghanistan and throughout the world.

FLINTOFF: Stephen Dupont told an Australian interviewer that he didn't believe the men who set fire to the bodies knew they were violating Muslim traditions, but the psyops soldiers did.

Mr. DUPONT: I think that the psychological operations unit that did the broadcast of the incident with the Taliban, including some other broadcasts--I think they're quite well aware of it. These are older guys. I mean, that's their job. They're psyops, you know; they use this as a weapon.

FLINTOFF: Major Matt McLaughlin, a spokesman for the Army Central Command, says the Army has launched a criminal investigation.

Major MATT McLAUGHLIN (Spokesman, Army Central Command): These are extremely serious allegations. That's absolutely unacceptable behavior. But let us be very clear: It is the policy of the US military to treat all human remains with absolute respect and dignity, consistent with the Geneva Convention. Anything else is absolutely unacceptable.

FLINTOFF: A US military official familiar with the issue said the investigation was ordered by the highest levels of the US command in Afghanistan, and said the video was regarded as `horrific.'

Ibrahim Hooper says the Council on American-Islamic Relations is concerned that the incident is one of many that represent a coarsening of attitudes among US military people who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. He says his group fears that some returning soldiers may bring those prejudices home with them.

Mr. HOOPER: We're concerned that you're going to eventually have a lot of American military personnel coming back from these areas with very negative attitudes about Islam and Muslims. And what will happen when these people are interacting with the millions of fellow citizens who are Muslims?

FLINTOFF: The Afghan government said it has opened its own investigation into the incident. US officials, meanwhile, are concerned that the charges could spur another round of protests like those last May, triggered by allegations that US interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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