A US sniper was removed from Iraq after he used a copy of the Koran for target practice, the military said on Sunday, a day after a US commander held a formal ceremony apologizing to Sunni tribal leaders.
The elaborate ceremony — in which one US officer kissed a new copy of Islam’s holy book before giving it to the tribal leaders — reflected the military’s eagerness to stave off anger among Sunni Arabs it has been cultivating as allies.
The tribesmen have become key in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq militants, who depict the US forces as anti-Islamic occupiers. One anti-US Iraqi Sunni group condemned the Koran shooting, calling it “a hideous act.”
Iraqi police found the bullet-riddled Koran with graffiti inside the cover on a firing range near a police station in Radwaniyah, west of Baghdad, US military spokesman Colonel Bill Buckner said.
US commanders launched an inquiry that led to disciplinary action against the unidentified soldier, who has been removed from Iraq, Buckner said.
Members of the local US-allied group said the Koran was found with 14 bullet holes in a field after US troops withdrew from a base in the area.
Sheik Ahmed Khudayer al-Janabi, a local tribal leader, said the group had planned a protest march last Thursday but called it off under pressure from US forces and to prevent any insurgent violence as retaliation.
The incident, which occurred on May 9 and was discovered two days later, was first reported by CNN, which broadcast a ceremony at which the top US commander in Baghdad apologized to tribal leaders on Saturday in Radwaniyah. The military confirmed the details on Sunday in an e-mailed response to a query.
“I come before you here seeking your forgiveness,” Major General Jeffery Hammond was quoted as saying at the ceremony. “In the most humble manner I look in your eyes today and I say please forgive me and my soldiers”
“The actions of one soldier were nothing more than criminal behavior,” he said. “I’ve come to this land to protect you, to support you — not to harm you — and the behavior of this soldier was nothing short of wrong and unacceptable.”
The commander also read a letter of apology by the shooter while another military official kissed a Koran and presented it to the tribal leaders, according to CNN.
The military statement called the incident “serious and deeply troubling but stressed it was the result of one soldier’s actions” and “not representative of the professionalism of our soldiers or the respect they have for all faiths.”
The Association of Muslim Scholars condemned the shooting and what it said was a belated acknowledgment of the incident, calling it “a hideous act against the book of almighty God and the constitution of the nation and the source of its glory and dignity.”
Sheik Eid Majid al-Zubaie, the preacher at the Radwaniyah mosque, said local leaders were outraged over discovery of the Koran but he said they had accepted the military’s apology.