Australian television aired video yesterday showing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan allegedly burning two dead Taliban fighters and using the charred bodies in an attempt to taunt other enemy forces in the area.
According to an Australian photojournalist who reportedly witnessed the event, the Taliban bodies were intentionally laid out on the ground to face Mecca, part of what the broadcast described as a deliberate desecration of Muslim beliefs. Two U.S. soldiers, said to be specialists in psychological operations, were pictured reciting propaganda messages aimed at Taliban fighters in surrounding mountains, calling them too "cowardly" to retrieve the bodies.
The broadcast prompted the U.S. military to order an immediate criminal investigation. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the region, issued a statement decrying any desecration of enemy combatants as contrary to U.S. policy and the Geneva Conventions.
"This command does not condone the mistreatment of enemy combatants or the desecration of their religious and cultural beliefs," Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the top U.S. tactical commander in Afghanistan, said in a separate statement. "This alleged action is repugnant to our common values, is contrary to our command's approved tactical operating procedures, and is not sanctioned by this command."
At the Pentagon, several officials expressed concern privately that the alleged incident could trigger violent protests in Afghanistan and elsewhere similar to the riots that erupted in May after a Newsweek report, later retracted, said guards at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down a toilet.
"There's a great deal of concern over the allegations," a senior defense official said. "Given the religious sensitivities in that part of the world, there's a desire to step out in front of the incident and show we're moving quickly to investigate."
The images, broadcast on the Australian program "Dateline," were said to have been shot early this month by Stephen DuPont while he was traveling with an unidentified U.S. military unit in southern Afghanistan.
John Martinkus, a "Dateline" journalist who narrated the broadcast, said the two men whose bodies were burned had been killed the night before by U.S. soldiers during a fight near the village of Gonbaz.
The footage showed flames consuming two charred corpses, their legs and arms outstretched. Five U.S. soldiers stood and watched from a rocky ledge. Two soldiers were then pictured reading messages blared by loudspeakers toward other enemy fighters within earshot.
"Attention, Taliban, you are cowardly dogs," read one soldier, identified as Sgt. Jim Baker. "You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burnt. You are too scared to retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be."
The message from the other soldier, who was not identified, said in part: "You attack and run away like women. You call yourself Talibs but you are a disgrace to the Muslim religion, and you bring shame upon your family. Come and fight like men instead of the cowardly dogs you are."
Martinkus reported that the soldiers had said they burned the bodies "for hygiene purposes." But he added that given the remote location, well away from the village, "this appears to make no sense."