Obama apologizes for Quran burning as protests continue
By MARTIN KUZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 23, 2012
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Barack Obama apologized to Afghans on Thursday over coalition troops burning copies of the Quran, vowing to hold the culprits responsible as protests roiled Afghanistan for a third straight day.
Thousands protested while President Hamid Karzai appealed for calm and the Taliban urged violence against “invading forces.”
Only hours after the Islamic militia called for retaliation, a man wearing an Afghan National Army uniform shot and killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded four others at a coalition base in Nangarhar province. An Afghan official told CBS News that the gunman was motivated by the desecration.
Afghan officials reported that six people were killed and more than 50 injured Thursday during skirmishes between protesters and police in at least seven provinces nationwide. A day earlier, police killed seven people and wounded more than 30 while trying to subdue demonstrators.
Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, met Thursday with Karzai to deliver a letter from Obama in which he apologized for the burning of Qurans by soldiers at Bagram Air Base.
“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,” Obama wrote. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.”
“The error was inadvertent. I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible,” the letter stated.
Obama’s missive followed public apologies earlier in the week from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and U.S. Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan. But the efforts at atonement have proven futile in quelling violence across the country.
Afghan officials reported that three people died as demonstrators clashed with police in the provinces of Baghlan and Uruzgan. In Laghman province, police fired shots into the air to repel several hundred people trying to breach the perimeter of a U.S. base in the town of Mehterlam.
Large crowds chanting anti-American slogans marched in the eastern city of Jalalabad and Kabul, the nation’s capital, where at least one person was injured.
The U.S. Embassy and United Nations compounds in Kabul remained locked down. Embassy and U.N. officials extended a travel ban on personnel nationwide and continued to advise against travel in Afghanistan for international workers and visitors.
In Kabul’s Bagrami district, where one of two protests in the capital took place, hundreds of people walked toward the district headquarters on a cloudless morning with the temperature below freezing.
Police wearing riot gear beat batons against their Plexiglas shields to chase off groups of young men who threw snowballs at them. Trucks carrying Afghan police and soldiers drove at high speed toward the district offices to bolster security forces already standing guard outside the compound.
As the long procession of demonstrators passed his fruit stand, Mohammad Arif, 51, spoke in a soft voice of his contempt for coalition forces.
“They are not here to help us,” he said. “We don’t want foreigners here.”
Taxi driver Jan Mohammad, 38, watched the protest from the comfort of his vehicle. He doubted that the show of public outrage would change the plight of Afghans.
“A demonstration doesn’t give us anything,” he said. “No one here listens to us. Right now, we are dying (and) getting injured in the demonstrations and there’s no reason.”
Turmoil has seized the nation since Tuesday, when reports spread that coalition soldiers at Bagram burned several copies of the Quran.
The soldiers had removed the Qurans and other Islamic religious writings from the air field’s detention facility and planned to dispose of the materials in an incinerator.
Afghan workers spotted the Qurans, which coalition officials said detainees had defaced with “extremist” messages, and extracted a handful of slightly burned copies from the pile of materials.
Karzai met with 300 members of parliament Thursday morning to seek their help in calming the country.
Around the same time, a Taliban spokesman released a public statement advocating revenge against foreign troops and urging Afghans to “kill them, capture them, beat them.”
Despite widespread coverage of the Quran burning, some U.S. troops had yet to hear about the controversy.
“For us, it’s just business as usual,” said Spc. Alec Koontz, 23, a cook from Salisbury, N.C., with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.
The unit is based at Combat Outpost Monti in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, only miles from the Pakistan border and one of the most restive regions in the country.
Local officials visited the outpost Thursday to assure U.S. soldiers that there would be no uprisings in the area. Even so, Spc. Gregory Billie, 21, remained wary.
Most residents “trust us to keep them safe,” said Billie, an artillery computer operator from High Point, N.C. “(But) I wouldn’t chance anyone” going outside the base.
Zubair Babakarkhail and Stars and Stripes reporter Matthew Millham contributed to this report.
A member of the Afghan police stands guard along the route taken by demonstrators to the Bagrami district headquarters in Kabul on Thursday morning. Hundreds of people turned out in the nation's capital to protest the burning of Qurans by coalition soldiers as unrest roiled the country for the third straight day.
MARTIN KUZ/STARS AND STRIPES