KABUL - Photographs apparently showing US soldiers posing with body parts of dead insurgents drew condemnation Wednesday from US officials including Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the commander of international forces in Afghanistan.
The Los Angeles Times published on the front page of its early editions a photograph of what it described as a soldier from the Army’s 82d Airborne Division with a dead insurgent’s hand on his shoulder. It said the photograph was one of 18 of soldiers posing with the corpses of insurgent fighters given to the newspaper by a soldier who served in Afghanistan with the 82d Airborne’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team from Fort Bragg, N.C.
The newspaper said the Afghan had died planting a bomb, citing police.
The story was later posted to the newspaper’s website with another photograph of US soldiers posing with the dismembered legs of another insurgent held upright by ropes.
The photographs were believed to have been taken in 2010, according to a spokeswoman for international forces in Afghanistan. She said it was not yet clear where the photographs had been taken, the number of service personnel involved, or if they are still serving in the military.
According to the newspaper, the photographs were taken in Zabul Province. Zabul is a particularly impoverished province in the south of the country, and the Taliban has maintained a strong presence there.
The story said that in one photograph two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised.
The revelation of the photographs followed video uncovered in January of four US Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters and appeared likely to complicate an already tense atmosphere for US forces in Afghanistan. There is a military investigation underway into the burning of Korans at Bagram Air Force Base in February that touched off deadly riots.
The military is also investigating the killing last month of Afghan villagers, including women and children, by a rogue US soldier in Kandahar Province.
The hostility over those episodes has redefined the already-strained relationship between the United States and Afghanistan and has added urgency to talks underway to lay out a long-term strategic partnership between the two countries - a critical step before the troop withdrawal deadline in 2014.
In a news conference at a NATO meeting in Brussels, Panetta criticized the soldiers’ actions, saying, “This is not who we are, and it’s certainly not what we represent when it comes to the great majority of men and women in uniform.’’
He added: “I know that war is ugly, and it’s violent. And I know that young people sometimes caught up in the moment make some very foolish decisions. I am not excusing that behavior. But neither do I want these images to bring further injury to our people and to our relationship with the Afghan people.
“We had urged the Los Angeles Times not to run those photos. And the reason for that is those kinds of photos are used by the enemy to incite violence, and lives have been lost as the result of the publication of similar photos. We regret that they were published. Having said that, again, that behavior is unacceptable and it will be fully investigated.’’
General John R. Allen, the senior allied commander in Afghanistan, condemned the actions apparently depicted in the photographs.
“The actions of the individuals photographed do not represent the policies of ISAF or the US Army,’’ he said in a statement, referring to the NATO coalition in Afghanistan.
The White House said President Obama had called for an investigation and promised that those responsible would be “held accountable.’’ And Allen, too, said the military would collaborate with Afghan authorities to investigate the photographs.