The U.S. military and Afghan authorities are investigating allegations that U.S. troops in Afghanistan burned the bodies of two dead Taleban fighters and used the act to taunt other militants. The Pentagon says the alleged acts, if true, were reprehensible.
U.S. military officials are promising an aggressive investigation of the body burning incident, which the State Department fears could deal another blow to the United States' image in the Muslim world.
A report first broadcast on Australian television Wednesday showed the burning bodies of what were said to have been two Taleban fighters killed in an ambush on a U.S. patrol near the Afghan city of Kandahar.
The Australian journalist who taped the October first incident said the bodies had been laid out facing the direction of Mecca in a deliberate desecration of Muslim beliefs.
He also said U.S. troops broadcast messages to a nearby village, believed to be harboring other Taleban fights, taunting them as cowards in an apparent effort to provoke the militants into an attack.
The U.S. military's Central Command, which includes forces in Afghanistan, said it does not condone the mistreatment of enemy combatants or the desecration of their religious beliefs, and said the actions depicted in the taped footage were reprehensible.
At a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the allegations are very serious and that the U.S. military's investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead, and that those responsible for wrongdoing will be "held to account."
Mr. McCormack also said the alleged actions of a few should not be allowed to obscure the work of the U.S. military and the values it represents.
He said even as the body burning story was emerging, U.S. troops from Afghanistan were involved in earthquake relief operations in Pakistan, and that in recent years U.S. forces have been deployed to help Muslim populations in world conflicts.
"If you look back over the history of our military interventions overseas over the past decade or so, you'll see that the United States has acted to liberate and defend Muslims around the world, whether that's in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Kuwait, or Iraq, or Afghanistan," he said. "And in terms of providing humanitarian aid, I pointed out the example of Pakistan, where our military is working on the ground to provide humanitarian relief to those in an hour of need."
The Afghan defense ministry expressed shock over the alleged abuse of the slain Taleban members, and said it has ordered its own investigation of the incident.
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission said the alleged actions of the U.S. troops were outrageous and an apparent breach of the Geneva convention requiring that enemy dead be honorably interred.
State Department officials are openly concerned that the repeated play of the Australian tape on international television could spur an anti-U.S. backlash, like the one after the exposure of mistreatment of prisoners at the U.S.-run Abu Graib prison in Iraq.
Spokesman McCormack said he was unaware of any formal protests from Muslim or other countries over the Afghan incident, but he said cables have been sent to U.S. diplomatic missions around the world with instructions on how to deal with government and media inquiries about it.
The issue flared as the State Department's new public diplomacy chief, Under-Secretary Karen Hughes, was beginning her second overseas mission, to Indonesia and Malaysia, aimed at helping repair the U.S. image abroad, especially in the Muslim world.
He said Ms. Hughes, who visited several Arab countries and Turkey last month, would be fully prepared to address the latest incident and emphasize that the alleged behavior does not reflect U.S. values.