Four U.S. soldiers face disciplinary action for burning the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters -- a videotaped incident that sparked outrage in Afghanistan -- but they will not be prosecuted because their actions were motivated by hygienic concerns, the military said Saturday.
Television footage recorded Oct. 1 in a violent part of southern Afghanistan showed American soldiers setting fire to the bodies and then boasting about the act on loudspeakers to taunt insurgents suspected to be hiding in a nearby village.
Islam bans cremation, and the video images were compared to photographs of U.S. troops abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Afghanistan's government condemned the desecration. Muslim clerics warned of a violent anti-American backlash, though there have been no protests so far.
American commanders immediately launched an inquiry and vowed that anyone found guilty would be severely punished, fearing the incident could undermine public support for the war against a stubborn insurgency four years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban.
The operational commander of the U.S.-led coalition, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, said that two junior officers who ordered the bodies burned would be reprimanded for showing a lack of cultural and religious understanding but that the men had been unaware at the time that they were doing anything wrong.
Kamiya also said two noncommissioned officers will be reprimanded for using the burning of the bodies to taunt the rebels. The two men also will face nonjudicial punishments, which could include a loss of pay or a demotion in rank.
"Our investigation found there was no intent to desecrate the remains but only to dispose of them for hygienic reasons," Kamiya said. He added that the broadcasts about the burned remains, while "designed to incite fleeing Taliban to fight," violated military policy.
Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid, who attended the military's news conference in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said, "We have confidence in this investigation."
But religious leaders criticized the findings.
"These soldiers should be severely punished," said Khair Mohammed, a senior cleric in Kandahar. "Foreign soldiers in Afghanistan must respect our religion. If they continue to do things like this, every Muslim will be against them."
Kamiya said that the temperature at the time of the incident was 90 degrees, and that the bodies had lain exposed on the ground for 24 hours and were rapidly decomposing.
"This posed an increasing health concern for our soldiers," Kamiya said. "The criminal investigation proved there was no violation of the rules of war."
The Geneva Convention forbids the burning of combatants except for hygienic purposes.