10/22/2005

Acceptable Reason?

There simply wasn't enough room on the rocky hilltop above Gonbaz village in southern Afghanistan for the U.S. platoon and the corpses of the two Taliban fighters. The Taliban men had been killed in a firefight 24 hours earlier, and in the 90 degree heat, their bodies had become an unbearable presence, soldiers who were present have told TIME. Nor was the U.S. Army unit about to leave — the hilltop commanded a strategic view of the village below where other Taliban were suspected to be hiding.

Earlier, Lt. Eric Nelson, the leader of B Company, I-508 platoon leader had sent word down to Gonbaz asking the villagers to pick up the bodies and bury them according to Muslim ritual. But the villagers refused — probably because the dead fighters weren't locals but Pakistanis, surmised one U.S. army officer.

It was then that Lt. Nelson took the decision that could jeopardize his service career. "We decided to burn the bodies," one soldier recounts, "because they were bloated and they stank." News of this cremation may have remained on these scorching hills of southern Afghanistan, had the gruesome act not been recorded on film by an Australian photojournalist, Stephen Dupont. Instead, when the footage aired on Australian TV on Wednesday, it unleashed world outrage. A Pentagon spokesman described the incident as "repugnant" and said that the army was launching a criminal investigation into the alleged desecration of the corpses, which is in violation of the Geneva Convention on human rights.

Fueling the furor was the fact that the TV report showed that after the bodies were torched, a U.S. Psychological-Operations team descended on Gonbaz in Humvees with their loudspeakers booming: "Taliban, you are cowardly dogs. You are too scared to come down and retrieve the bodies. This just proves you are the lady-boys we always believed you to be."

Muslims traditionally bury their dead, and as one Kabul cleric Mohammed Omar told newsmen, "The burning of these bodies is an offense against Muslims every where. Bodies are burned only in Hell." But as one U.S. officer in Kandahar pointed out, the Taliban and al Qaeda never show any qualms about defiling the bodies of dead Afghan or American soldiers. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, anxious to quell any new wave of protests against the U.S. troops in Afghanistan of the sort that followed allegations of Koran desecration at Guantanamo, publicly condemned the burnings. A statement from the U.S. military command for Afghanistan said, "Under no circumstances does U.S. Central Command condone the desecration, abuse or inappropriate treatment of enemy combatants."

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