February 21, 2012


[Proper treatment of the Koran is a highly sensitive issue for Muslims across the world, including in Afghanistan, where international troops are fighting to defeat the militantly Islamist Taliban in a war that has entered its 11th year. Experts in Islam say copies of the Koran should be buried or released in flowing waters if they need to be disposed of, but religious leaders in Afghanistan said Tuesday that local practice is not to dispose of the texts at all.]
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — As thousands of angry Afghans flung rocks at NATO’s largest military base in Afghanistan on Tuesday, American officials sought to quell a widening furor over what they said was the accidental incineration by U.S. military personnel of copies of the Islamic holy book.
The protests erupted early Tuesday, after Afghans working at Bagram air base told local residents that a number of copies of the Koran had been burned. When they carried out the charred pages, waving them in the air, the crowd grew larger and more defiant.

Among those chanting “long live Islam” and “death to America” were some of the 5,000 Afghans who have worked inside the base for years. Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was quick to express contrition for the incident, which officials worried could incite violence across the country.
U.S. officials said the books were mistakenly sent with a pile of trash for disposal before several Afghans identified them. Although the initial protests were concentrated largely around the Bagram base, some of the charred Koran remains were sent promptly to Kabul, where President Hamid Karzai and other top Afghan officials will decide how to respond to the incident.
“These people must be punished,” said Qari Ghulam Mustafa, a top religious official from Parwan province, where Bagram is located. He carried a stack of 10 blackened Korans on his lap as he and others traveled to the capital in a white hatchback. He said nearly 100 more publications were damaged.
“If the Americans ever deny that they did this, we will show them these pages,” said Mullah Abdul Rahim Shah Agha, the head of the Parwan ulema council, or Muslim clerical body.
The apologies from Allen and top Obama administration officials were among the most profuse of the decade-long war. But there was no immediate indication that they would calm the kind of unrest that has turned explosive in the past, notably in April, when deadly protests broke out over a case of Koran-burning in Florida.
“When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them,” Allen said in a statement. “We are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again. I assure you ... I promise you ... this was NOT intentional in any way.”
The United States faces an enormous challenge in withdrawing its troops over the next two years while attempting to protect hard-won gains and facilitate a delicate peace process between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents. With so little margin for error, the incident Tuesday could threaten the relationship on which U.S. military and diplomatic strategies depend.
U.S. and Afghan officials expressed concerns about the prospect of more violent reaction in coming days.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul warned American citizens, “Past demonstrations in Afghanistan have escalated into violent attacks on Western targets of opportunity.”
The incident also could complicate relations between NATO forces and those Afghans who perform a variety of non-military functions on bases. The hundreds of Bagram employees who were among the protesters will have to decide whether to leave their jobs or continue working while disguising their antipathy.
“The people who do this are our enemies,” said a 27-year-old who has worked at a warehouse on the base for two years. “How could I ever work for them again?”
Another Bagram employee who joined the protest said, “Whoever goes back to work will be killed. They’ll think of us as traitors.” The workers declined to give their names for fear of reprisals.
More than 3,000 people were involved in the protests Tuesday. Afghan and Western security forces blocked roads leading to the base and instructed local employees to stay home. But when they heard about the incident, the workers arrived at the base’s front gate in droves.
Rumors about the incident — and American motives — circulated through the crowd. In Kabul, 35 miles to the south, even top Afghan officials struggled to understand what had happened.
Gen. Ahmad Amin Naseeb, director of the Afghan army’s religious and cultural affairs department, said he had been told “that the international troops have burned and thrown copies of the Koran into the dustbins.”
In his second statement of the day, Allen announced that all NATO forces in Afghanistan would complete training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.
NATO said religious materials, including Korans “identified for disposal,” were collected at the Parwan Detention Facility, a prison next to the base, and “were inadvertently taken to an incineration facility at Bagram airfield” Monday night.
A Western military official said several hundred Islamic publications, including Korans, were removed from the prison library because some had extremist content and others contained radical messages that detainees were writing to one another, the Associated Press reported. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the texts were charred but that none were destroyed.
Proper treatment of the Koran is a highly sensitive issue for Muslims across the world, including in Afghanistan, where international troops are fighting to defeat the militantly Islamist Taliban in a war that has entered its 11th year. Experts in Islam say copies of the Koran should be buried or released in flowing waters if they need to be disposed of, but religious leaders in Afghanistan said Tuesday that local practice is not to dispose of the texts at all.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed Allen’s apology, saying: “We apologize to the Afghan people and disapprove of such conduct in the strongest possible terms. This deeply unfortunate incident does not reflect the great respect our military has for the Afghan people. It’s regrettable.”
Correspondents Sayed Salahuddin and Walid Fazly contributed to this report.

@ The Washington Post

CAIRO — Two Iranian warships docked in a Syrian port on Monday as a senior Iranian lawmaker denounced American calls for arming the Syrian opposition, adding to the international tensions over the nearly yearlong crackdown by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
As government forces continued to pound opposition strongholds, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was trying to negotiate a brief pause in the violence to deliver aid to the most devastated areas.
Activist groups reported intensified attacks on the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood in the central city of Homs. They said the government’s inability to eradicate the opposition there despite weeks of bombardment could be preventing the military from striking deeper and harder into other parts of the country where armed resistance and rebellion are believed to be growing, including Hama and Idlib Province to the north.
“The biggest challenge in Homs is Baba Amr,” said Wissam Tarif, of the activist group Avaaz. “They cannot move military power to Idlib or Hama without finishing Homs first. They cannot leave any pockets of resistance behind them.” He said 16 people were killed in Homs on Monday. Such reports are impossible to verify.
A video posted on YouTube showed an artillery strike on Baba Amr that sent a plume of dark smoke into the clear, sunny sky. “God is my only and best guardian,” muttered the panicked videographer. “The world remains silent. Today is Feb. 20, 2012.”
Armed rebels have provided a measure of security to some protesters in places like Hama, which was leveled 30 years ago as Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, put down an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, killing at least 10,000 people. In a video posted on YouTube on Monday, several hundred people jumped and danced in Halfaya, a neighborhood of Hama, in what the video described as a regular “morning protest.”
Still, more than 50 checkpoints divide up the city, said the Local Coordination Committees, a grass-roots group that organizes and documents protests, and security forces have detained more than 500 people there in the past three weeks.
The living situation in Hama, Homs and other hard-hit areas, including two suburbs of Damascus, Zabadani and Madaya, has become increasingly grim. In Homs, supplies of food, baby formula, medicine and potable water are all running out, said a spokeswoman for the committees.
“About two weeks ago, we sent 200 cans of baby milk into Homs, and they said they could not even meet 10 percent of their needs,” said the spokeswoman, Jasmine, who asked to use only one name for security reasons. “Now, no one can get in or go out.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had begun negotiations with Syrian authorities for a pause in the fighting of as little as a few hours.
“The I.C.R.C. is exploring several possibilities for delivering urgently needed humanitarian aid,” Reuters quoted a spokeswoman, Carla Haddad, as saying. “These include a cessation of fighting in the most affected areas to facilitate swift Syrian Arab Red Crescent and I.C.R.C. access to the people in need.”
The Iranian ships arrived in the Syrian port, Tartus, days after the sharpest international rebuke to Mr. Assad so far: the passage of a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the crackdown and calling for him to step aside. The current escalation of attacks on Homs and other areas began early this month, after the same resolution was vetoed in the Security Council by Russia and China. Russia recently sent ships to the same Syrian port, activists said. Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency called the ships “a serious warning” to the United States, and quoted a senior Iranian lawmaker’s denunciations of comments by Senator John McCain a day earlier in support of arming the Syrian opposition.
“The presence of Iran and Russia’s flotillas along the Syrian coast has a clear message against the United States’ possible adventurism,” said Hossein Ebrahimi, a vice chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, Fars reported.
The mission and cargo of the ships are unknown.
“In case of any U.S. strategic mistake in Syria, there is a possibility that Iran, Russia and a number of other countries will give a crushing response to the U.S.,” said Mr. Ebrahimi, according to Fars.
Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican who was in Afghanistan on Sunday, told reporters there that he was in favor of arming the Syrian opposition, while stressing that no direct American involvement was necessary. In Cairo on Monday, he repeated that position.
“I am not calling for direct supply of weapons to Syria,” Mr. McCain said. “We have seen in Libya that there are ways to get weapons to people so that they can defend themselves. It is time that we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.”
Rod Nordland contributed reporting from Cairo.

@ The New York Times