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U.S. soldier in Iraq uses Koran for target practice

By Khaled al-Ansary, Reuters
Published: May 18, 2008

BAGHDAD: U.S. military commanders have apologised to community leaders in Iraq after a U.S. soldier used a copy of the Koran for shooting practice, fearing an outburst of anger among U.S.-allied tribesmen.

Bloody protests have sometimes broken out across the Muslim world when the Islamic faith has been insulted. The swift apology by the U.S. commanders appeared aimed at avoiding similar violence in Iraq.

The U.S. military said on Sunday the soldier, who was not identified, had been disciplined and ordered to leave Iraq after a copy of the Muslim holy book was found riddled with bullet holes at a shooting range near Baghdad on May 11.
Pictures obtained by Reuters showed the holy book with at least 10 bullet holes.

The incident is deeply embarrassing for the U.S. military, which has been working hard to forge alliances with Sunni Arab tribes to fight al Qaeda in Iraq. It has credited such alliances with helping to sharply reduce violence in the country.

An Iraqi community leader told Reuters the apology by senior American military commanders had helped calm tensions.

"I was feeling bitterness, but as long as they apologised we are OK with them. Our anger has cooled," said Saeed al-Zubaie, head of a U.S.-allied Sunni Arab tribal council in the Radwaniya area near Baghdad where the Koran was found.

He said Sunni Arab tribal units who work alongside U.S. forces in the area had threatened to quit unless the military took action.

The U.S. television news network CNN said Major-General Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, and other officers were met by hundreds of protesters when they went to Radwaniya to deliver the apology on Saturday.

"I am a man of honour, I am a man of character. You have my word this will never happen again," Hammond told the crowd, CNN reported.

Colonel Bill Buckner, a U.S. military spokesman, described the shooting incident as "serious and deeply troubling".

The U.S. military relies heavily on Sunni Arab tribes as part of its strategy to crush al Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist group it blames for most major suicide bombings in Iraq.

BUSH PRAISES IRAQI LEADERS

The Iraqi military said an offensive against al Qaeda in its last urban stronghold in the northern city of Mosul had forced some militants to flee into the surrounding Nineveh province and across the porous border Iraq shares with Syria.

"They're trying to escape because they do not have the ability to confront us," Defence Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said on Sunday.

Previous U.S. and Iraqi offensives against al Qaeda have failed to deal a knockout blow to the group, with its militants preferring to escape to fight another day rather than battling troops backed by armour and warplanes.

U.S. President George W. Bush met several Iraqi political leaders on Sunday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and praised their efforts to improve security.

"I told them I'm impressed by the progress that is taking place, security progress," Bush said. "We also talked about the fact that more work needs to be done, there's still problems."

Washington views provincial elections due later this year as key to fostering national reconciliation by boosting the participation of minority Sunni Arabs in politics.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced on Sunday that Iraq would hold the polls across different days for security reasons and to prevent voter-rigging.

"The government is resolved to provide the appropriate atmosphere to hold the elections in a proper way and to guarantee neutrality, away from anyone's interference," he said in a statement.

The polls are due to be held on October 1, but it was not immediately clear if that would remain the first day of voting.

Political analysts say the elections will be the battleground for a fierce power struggle -- especially among majority Shi'ites -- that could redraw Iraq's political map.

(Additional reporting by Dean Yates; Writing by Tim *censored*s: Editing by Ross Colvin and Richard Balmforth)

http://www.iht.com/articles/reuters/2008/05/18/africa/OUKWD-UK-IRAQ.php

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