“I wanted him to know how grieved we were at what happened here,” Panetta said in an interview while traveling to Fort Bliss, Tex. “What I want is an investigation into what happened here, what laws were violated by what took place, who these individuals were.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed “total dismay” at the apparent behavior by Marines. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he was “deeply disturbed” and that the actions “erode the reputation of our joint force.”
The swift U.S. response was intended to stave off the kind of international outrage that followed the 2004 release of pictures depicting the humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Military officials said they feared the photographic evidence of apparent Marine misconduct could produce a severe setback at a critical time in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have stepped up their long-shot efforts to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban while struggling to maintain support from Karzai. The United States is also confronting an increasingly war-weary population in Afghanistan, where people often lend a sympathetic ear to Taliban propaganda about the presence and motives of foreign troops.
Before receiving Panetta’s call Thursday, Karzai reacted sharply to news of the video, describing it as “completely inhumane and condemnable in the strongest possible terms.” His administration called on the U.S. military to “apply the most severe punishment to anyone found guilty in this crime.”
Panetta said the phone call seemed to mollify the Afghan leader. “He appreciated what I was saying and appreciated the fact we understand how damaging this could be and that we are taking that kind of action.”
Video implicates Marines
The video, which runs for less than a minute, appears to show four Marines in combat gear laughing and joking as they urinate on three male bodies lined up on the ground next to a toppled wheelbarrow. The caption refers to the corpses as “dead Talibans,” but it was unclear whether they were civilians or fighters killed after a battle.
A caption that accompanies the video asserts that the Marines are part of a scout sniper team with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, an infantry unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Marines from the unit were deployed to Afghanistan last year but returned to the United States in September.
The NATO-led security force in Kabul said in a statement that the acts of desecration “appear to have been conducted by a small group of U.S. individuals, who apparently are no longer serving in Afghanistan.” The statement did not elaborate.