BAGHDAD ‚ÄĒ President Bush has apologized to Iraq's prime minister for an American sniper's shooting of a Quran, and the Iraqi government called on U.S. military commanders to educate their soldiers to respect local religious beliefs.
Bush's spokeswoman said Tuesday that the president apologized during a videoconference Monday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who told the president that the shooting of Islam's holy book had disappointed and angered both the Iraqi people and their leaders.
"He apologized for that in the sense that he said that we take it very seriously," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "We are concerned about the reaction. We wanted them to know that the president knew that this was wrong."
It was the highest level in a string of statements by U.S. officials trying to soothe anger over the shooting incident, particularly among Sunni Arabs who have become key allies in the fight against insurgents.
The U.S. military said Sunday that it had disciplined the sniper and removed him from Iraq after he was found to have used Islam's holy book for target practice May 9 in a predominantly Sunni area west of Baghdad. The book was found two days later by Iraqis on a firing range in Radwaniyah with 14 bullet holes in it and graffiti written on its pages, tribal leaders said.
Similar perceived insults against Islam in Europe and elsewhere have sparked violent protests, and American officials appeared eager to contain the outrage.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, told Bush of the "disappointment and anger of the people and government of Iraq over the soldier's disgraceful action," according to a statement from his office.
Al-Maliki's office said Bush told the prime minister that the sniper would face trial, but Perino did not say whether Bush made such a promise. Military officials have not spoken of any further action against the soldier, who has not been identified.
Al-Maliki's office said the Iraqi Cabinet called on Tuesday for the "severest" punishment against the sniper and warned of "grave consequences" if similarly offensive actions were committed in the future.
It also called on commanders of U.S.-led foreign troops in Iraq to educate their soldiers on the need to respect the religious beliefs of Iraqis.
On Tuesday, Khalaf al-Elyan, a senior Sunni Arab lawmaker, said the sniper must stand trial, preferably in Baghdad.
"It is a dangerous case. We had been silent and accepted the killing of our sons, the destruction of our homes and the theft of our money, but we do not accept insults to the holy Quran," he said at a news conference.
Bush's statement of regret came after similar moves by U.S. military leaders.
Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, met with tribal leaders in Radwaniyah on Sunday to apologize while another American officer kissed a copy of the Quran before presenting it to the chiefs.
On Monday, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, paid visits to al-Maliki as well as Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, both of whom are Sunni Arabs.
Al-Hashemi, the top Sunni Arab in the government, told Austin that "the feelings of bitterness and anger cannot be eased unless there is a deterrent punishment and real guarantees" such an incident won't be repeated, according to a statement from his office.
Al-Hashemi expressed his appreciation for the visit but asked for a written apology from the U.S. military.
The vice president's Iraqi Islamic Party also issued a tough statement saying an apology alone was not enough and the U.S. military should impose the "severest punishment" on the soldier.
Austin underlined in all three meetings that the soldier had been removed from Iraq, the military said. "He assured them that the matter was serious and that we hold our soldiers accountable for their actions," the statement said.