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But critics are already pouncing on the story as the latest in a high-profile series of media blunders at such respected news organizations as the New York Times, USA Today and CBS News. In this case, the consequences -- deadly riots -- were far more serious than a breach of journalistic ethics.
But while the Pentagon is disputing the Koran incident, U.S. officials have confirmed numerous reports by detainees, especially at Abu Ghraib, about guards attempting to humiliate them with tactics that violate religious taboos of the Muslim faith. A senior Pentagon official has confirmed reports that female interrogators rubbed their bodies against the men, wore skimpy clothes, touched them provocatively and pretended to spread menstrual blood on them. The Newsweek item that triggered the violence also said the forthcoming report would describe "one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee's hair and sat on the detainee's lap."
The intensity of the anti-American riots, fueled in part by outraged Muslim clerics and radio broadcasts by elements of the ousted Taliban regime, took many Western analysts by surprise. Desecrating the Koran is punishable by death in some Muslim countries. Newsweek reported yesterday that agitators opposed to the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had seized on the report to foment violence.
About 500 Islamic scholars meeting in the northern Afghan province of Badakshan, where protests were held last week, passed a resolution yesterday urging a U.S. investigation of the Newsweek report, according to wire service accounts.
Interviews with several people in the province yielded differing views of the controversy. Javed Ahmed, 23, a sandal salesman who participated in the demonstration, said he was unaware of the Newsweek story until the radio program of Iranian, Afghan and Indian songs that he normally listens to was interrupted with news of the violent protests in Jalalabad. He was initially "doubtful" about the allegation, he said, "but when I saw it on television later that day, I became more sure it was true."
Ghulam Dastagir, 28, a bird seller who refused to join the demonstration, said: "I don't think the report is true, but these crises work for those who want to make fights between people."
Del Agha, 47, a dry-goods salesman who joined the protest, said, "Even now, I'm not sure if this was true." He said he participated because "we just wanted to tell the world that the people who did this should be brought to justice" for "disrespecting the holy Koran. . . . We wanted to have a peaceful demonstration but the demonstration was like a car and some people who are the enemies of Afghanistan took the steering wheel and turned it in the wrong direction."
The fallout here is starting to build, and Dan Klaidman, Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, was doing cable news interviews yesterday, describing the story as "an honest mistake."
Said Whitaker: "I suppose you could say we should have foreseen the consequences of the report, but we didn't."
Staff writers N.C. Aizenmann in Kabul and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.