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Top U.S. officials moved swiftly Thursday to try to prevent diplomatic damage and contain public disgust from the release of a video that appeared to show Marines urinating on three Afghan corpses — images that spread quickly around the globe.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said he had viewed the video and considered it “utterly deplorable.” He telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai and pledged a full investigation.
Prior to the call, Karzai described the video 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.”
The video, which runs for less than a minute, depicts four Marines in combat gear laughing and joking as they urinate on three male bodies. The caption refers to the corpses as “dead Talibans,” but it is unclear whether the men were civilians or fighters killed after a battle.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed “total dismay” at the behavior depicted in the recording, and said the “vast, vast” majority of American military personnel would not engage in such actions.
Warning: The video includes graphic images.
A Marine official said investigators were questioning two individuals that they had preliminarily identified as being in the video. The Marine Corps is “fairly confident” that all four are members of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the probe is underway.
There was no way to determine independently where the video was filmed or the identities of those involved. It was first posted on the Internet on Wednesday and began to circulate quickly as news sites reported on its existence.
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.
Pentagon officials said that they were still trying to confirm the video’s authenticity but that they had no reason to believe it was a fake. “It certainly appears to us to be what it appears to be to you guys,” Capt. John Kirby, a defense spokesman, told reporters.
Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said he had asked the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to “pull together a team of their very best agents and immediately assign them responsibility to thoroughly investigate every aspect of the filmed event.” He also said he would assign a Marine general and a senior attorney to conduct a parallel inquiry.
“The institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved,” Amos said. “We remain fully committed to upholding the Geneva Convention, the Laws of War, and our own core values.”
U.S. military law and the Geneva Convention prohibit the desecration of bodies of people killed in war.
Fallout from the video comes at a particularly sensitive time for the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
The Obama administration is trying to resume peace talks with the Taliban but is awaiting formal approval from Karzai, who torpedoed an earlier attempt at negotiations. Washington has been trying to accelerate the negotiations as it draws down troops and nears a self-imposed December 2014 deadline to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said they are far from certain that the Taliban leadership is seriously interested in a political settlement. It was unclear whether the Marine video would make those diplomatic challenges even more difficult.
The Taliban, which has a long-standing reputation for brutality and beheadings, called the video barbaric, but made no immediate demands for retribution, as it has in the past. “It was inhuman and despicable, an unforgivable act,” said Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi.
At the same time, other Taliban spokesmen told reporters that the incident would not interfere with the early stages of diplomatic negotiations. In a statement, the group said it would continue to pursue a political solution to the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan — but did not soften its hostility to Karzai’s government.
“We have increased our political efforts to come to mutual understanding with the world in order to solve the current ongoing situation,” the statement said. “But this understanding does not mean a surrender from Jihad, and neither is it connected to an acceptance of the constitution of the stooge Kabul administration.”
Digital videos and photography have become increasingly common on the battlefield, and many of the amateur productions wind up on the Internet. On occasion, the trend has caused severe embarrassment for the U.S. military. Rare cases, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq, triggered international controversy and legal action against those involved.
The Pentagon has sent mixed messages on social media, reviewing troops’ blogs for inappropriate content and classified information at the same time as it has encouraged units and commanders to communicate through Facebook. In embracing social media, the Pentagon has effectively acknowledged that it simply cannot stop the flood of data and images coming from the battlefield.
In 2010, members from the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, photographed themselves posing with corpses of Afghan civilians who were gunned down by a self-proclaimed “kill team” of rogue soldiers. In that case, however, the Army confiscated hundreds of photographs and successfully kept them out of the public domain for months.
A few were later obtained, and were published last March by two news magazines — Rolling Stone and Der Spiegel, a German publication — but the impact was relatively muted.
In Afghanistan on Thursday, in an embattled swath of Kandahar province, a local Afghan official was killed by a suicide bomber as he was traveling along a roadway, a government spokesman said.
Sayed Fazluddin Agha was the governor of Panjwaj, a district within Kandahar. Four people who were with him were killed as well. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Correspondents Kevin Sieff, Javed Hamdard and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report from Kabul.
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