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.

The elaborate ceremony - 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 the Sunni Arabs it has been cultivating as allies.

The tribesmen have become key in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq militants, who depict U.S. forces as anti-Islamic occupiers. One anti-U.S. Sunni group in Iraq called the Quran shooting "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, said a U.S. military spokesman, Col. Bill Buckner.

U.S. 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 the Quran was found with 14 bullet holes in a field after U.S. troops withdrew from a base in the area.

Sheikh Ahmed Khudayer al-Janabi, a tribal leader, said the group had planned a protest march last Thursday but called it off under pressure from U.S. forces and to prevent any insurgent violence as retaliation.

The incident, which occurred May 9 and was discovered two days later, 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.

The commander also read a letter of apology by the shooter 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 hard-line 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."