In letter to Karzai, Obama apologizes for Koran burning
More violence feared as protests rage for 3d day
KABUL - President Obama apologized yesterday for the burning of Korans at the largest US base in Afghanistan earlier this week as furious protests raged for a third day and a man wearing an Afghan army uniform turned his weapon on coalition soldiers, killing two of them.
“I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident,’’ Obama said in a letter to President Hamid Karzai. “I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.’’
The letter was handed to Karzai by the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan C. Crocker, yesterday afternoon in Kabul.
The acting spokesman for the US Embassy in Kabul, Mark Thornburg, confirmed that the letter had been hand-delivered by Crocker to Karzai.
“The error was inadvertent,’’ Obama said. “I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.’’
The letter, an apparent attempt to quell the ferocity of the protests, followed a third day of angry demonstrations across Afghanistan in which another six Afghans were killed and at least 55 wounded, according to Afghan officials.
As the protests raged, the international coalition said two NATO service members were killed in eastern Afghanistan when a man wearing the uniform of the Afghan National Army turned his gun on NATO soldiers.
The NATO commanding general in Afghanistan, John R. Allen, had already offered his apology for the burning of the Korans, ordered an investigation, and issued an order for every coalition soldier in Afghanistan to complete training in “the proper handling of religious materials.’’
By yesterday morning, demonstrations had begun to widen, officials and witnesses said, though some crowds were small and relatively peaceful.
But one, in Laghman Province, drew as many as 1,000 protesters and turned violent as demonstrators marched to a NATO-run base for provincial reconstruction.
In Baghlan Province, there was a confrontation between police and protesters and one protester was killed, officials said.
In a late-night statement sent to the media Wednesday, Karzai urged demonstrators not to resort to violence.
Karzai scheduled a hastily arranged meeting with members of both houses of Parliament yesterday morning at the presidential palace and some 300 lawmakers arrived to participate, said a presidential spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
The fury does not appear likely to abate soon. Some members of Parliament called on Afghans to take up arms against the US military, and Western officials said they feared that conservative mullahs might incite more violence at the weekly Friday Prayer, when a large number of people worship at mosques.
“Americans are invaders, and jihad against Americans is an obligation,’’ said Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a member of Parliament from the Ghorband district in Parwan Province, where at least four demonstrators were killed in confrontations with police Wednesday.
Standing with about 20 other members of Parliament, Khawasi called on mullahs and religious leaders “to urge the people from the pulpit to wage jihad against Americans.’’
The Taliban also called on people to take up arms against the foreign troops here and the Afghan security forces.
In a message that was sent to the media and posted on Taliban websites, the insurgent group gave specific instructions including to “attack the occupiers’ military bases, their military convoys, and other occupying soldiers.’’
The goal, according to the Taliban statement, was to attack US installations and property but not Afghans’ “public property.’’
The message also urged attacks on those “who still close their eyes to this unforgivable act of the infidels’’ and those who defend US property, an allusion to the Afghan security forces.
The White House said Obama had also used the letter to Karzai to discuss other issues concerning the United States’ long-term relationship with Afghanistan. The two leaders had spoken by telephone Monday, a day before the Koran burning incident, when they discussed among other things Karzai’s recent visit to Pakistan and the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban.
“Following up on their Feb. 20 phone call, the president sent a letter to President Karzai to continue their discussion on a range of issues related to our long-term partnership,’’ said Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, in a statement. “In the letter . . . the president also expressed our regret and apologies over the incident in which religious materials were unintentionally mishandled at Bagram Air Base.’’