Kabul, Afghanistan - The U.S. apologized Tuesday for the burning of Muslim holy books that had been pulled from the shelves of a detention center library adjoining a major base in eastern Afghanistan because they contained extremist messages or inscriptions.
The White House echoed military officials in saying that the burning of Qurans and other Islamic reading material that had been tossed in a pile of garbage was an accident.
But more than 2,000 Afghans protested the incident outside the Bagram Air Base that stoked rising anti-foreign sentiment and fueled Afghan claims that foreign troops disrespect their culture and Islamic religion even as the Americans and other NATO forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014.
Demonstrators who gathered outside Bagram Air Field, one of the largest U.S. bases in Afghanistan, shouted, "Die, die, foreigners!" Some fired rifles into the air. Others threw rocks at the gate of the base and set tires on fire.
U.S. Gen. John Allen, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the books had been mistakenly given to troops to be burned at a garbage pit at Bagram, a sprawling U.S. military base north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"It was not a decision that was made because they were religious materials," Allen said. "It was not a decision that was made with respect to the faith of Islam. It was a mistake. It was an error. The moment we found out about it we immediately stopped and we intervened."
The Quran is the most sacred object in the daily lives of Muslims and burning it is considered an offense against God. The Quran is so important in the faith that Islamic teaching spells out how it should be handled, including directing anyone who touches it to be in a state of ritual purity. Muslims can only dispose of Qurans in very specific ways, including burning or burying those that have been damaged or corrupted to prevent God's word from being defiled.
A Western military official with knowledge of the incident said it appeared that the Qurans and other Islamic readings in the library were being used to fuel extremism, and that detainees at Parwan Detention Facility, which adjoins Bagram, were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The military official said that several hundred Islamic publications, including Qurans, were removed from the library. Some of the publications had extremist content; others had extremist messages written on their pages by detainees, the official said. The official said the documents were charred and burnt, but none of them were destroyed.
"We will look into the reason those materials were gathered," Allen said. "We will look into the manner in which the decision was made to dispose of them in this manner."
Allen issued a new directive ordering all coalition forces in Afghanistan to complete training in the proper handling of religious materials no later than March 3. The training will include the identification of religious materials, their significance, correct handling and storage, he said.
The White House also apologized, with press secretary Jay Carney saying it was a "deeply unfortunate incident" that doesn't reflect the respect the U.S. military has for the religious practices of the Afghan people. Carney did not address details about what occurred.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta added his voice, saying he disapproved of the conduct. He promised to review the results of the coalition's investigation to ensure that all steps are taken to prevent it from happening again.
In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the incident and appointed a delegation to investigate. He said initial reports were that four Qurans were burned.
Early Tuesday, as word of the incident spread, about 100 demonstrators gathered outside the base in Parwan province. As the crowd grew, so did the outrage.
One protester, Mohammad Hakim, said if U.S. forces can't bring peace to Afghanistan, they should go home.
"They should leave Afghanistan rather than disrespecting our religion, our faith," Hakim said. "They have to leave and if next time they disrespect our religion, we will defend our holy Quran, religion and faith until the last drop of blood has left in our body."
Ahmad Zaki Zahed, chief of the provincial council, said U.S. military officials took him to a burn pit on the base where 60 to 70 books, including Qurans, were recovered. The books were used by detainees once incarcerated at the base, he said.
"Some were all burned. Some were half-burned," Zahed said, adding that he did not know exactly how many Qurans had been burned.
Zahed said five Afghans working at the pit told him that the religious books were in the garbage that two soldiers with the U.S.-led coalition transported to the pit in a truck Monday night. When they realized the books were in the trash, the laborers quickly worked to recover them, he said.
"The laborers there showed me how their fingers were burned when they took the books out of the fire," he said.
Afghan Army Gen. Abdul Jalil Rahimi, the commander of a military coordination office in the province, said he and other officials met with protesters, tribal elders and clerics to try to calm their emotional response. "The protesters were very angry and didn't want to end their protest," he said.
Later, however, the protesters ended the rally and said they would send 20 representatives from the group to Kabul to talk with Afghan parliamentarians and demanded a meeting with Karzai, Rahimi said.
The governor's office in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan called the incident a "shameful move by some stupid individuals."
Zia Ul Rahman, deputy provincial police chief, said between 2,000 and 2,500 protesters demonstrated at the base.
"The people are very angry. The mood is very negative," Rahman said while the rally was going on. "Some are firing hunting guns in the air, but there have been no casualties."
Police said a similar protest on Tuesday just east of Kabul ended peacefully.
In April 2011, Afghans protesting the burning of a Quran by a Florida pastor turned deadly when gunmen in the crowd stormed a U.N. compound in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed three staffers and four Nepalese guards.
Also on Tuesday, NATO said four NATO service members were killed in southern Afghanistan – three in a roadside bombing and one in a non-battle related injury. The international military coalition did not give any other details about their deaths. So far this year, 47 NATO service members have been killed in Afghanistan.