BAGHDAD - An American sniper was removed from Iraq after he used a copy of the Quran for target practice, the military said yesterday, a day after a U.S. commander held a formal ceremony apologizing to Sunni tribal leaders.
Also yesterday, an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb that hit his vehicle north of Baghdad, raising to at least 4,080 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003.
The elaborate apology ceremony on Saturday - in which one U.S. 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 American forces as anti-Islamic occupiers. One anti-U.S. Iraqi Sunni group condemned the Quran shooting, calling it "a hideous act." Similar perceived insults to Islam have triggered protests throughout the Muslim world.
Iraqi police found the bullet-riddled Quran with graffiti inside the cover on a firing range near a police station in Radwaniyah, a former insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Col. Bill Buckner said.
American 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 U.S.-allied group said that the Quran was found with 14 bullet holes in a field after U.S. troops withdrew from a base in the area.
Sheik Ahmed Khudayer al-Janabi, a local tribal leader, said that the group had planned a protest march last week but called it off under pressure from U.S. forces and to prevent any insurgent violence as retaliation.
The incident, which occurred on May 9, was first reported by CNN, which broadcast a ceremony at which the top American commander in Baghdad apologized to tribal leaders Saturday in Radwaniyah.
The military confirmed the details yesterday in an e-mailed response to a query.
"I come before you here seeking your forgiveness," Maj. Gen. 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 added. "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, who has not been identified, while another military official kissed a Quran and presented it to the tribal leaders, according to CNN.
Tribal leaders, dignitaries and local security officials attended the ceremony, while protesters carried banners and chanted slogans, including "Yes, yes to the Quran" and "America out, out."
The military statement called the incident "serious and deeply troubling," but stressed that 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." *