Baghdad -- U.S. commanders moved swiftly to avert a crisis after a soldier deployed in Baghdad used a copy of the Quran for target practice.
The incident had the potential to inflame Muslim opinion against the U.S. military and compromise the delicate alliance it has been forging with Sunni Arab communities against religious extremists.
Local leaders accepted an apology from senior U.S. commanders, and the military said yesterday that the soldier responsible had been disciplined and pulled from Iraq.
Col. Bill Buckner, a U.S. military spokesman, described the incident as "serious and deeply troubling" but stressed that it was an isolated case.
"This incident is not representative of the professionalism of our soldiers or the respect they have for all faiths," he said in a statement.
Iraqi police found the desecrated copy of the Islamic holy book on May 11 at a small shooting range near a police station in Radwaniyah, a mostly Sunni district on Baghdad's western outskirts, Buckner said. The volume was riddled with bullets and had graffiti inside the cover.
Community leaders were outraged and threatened to stop helping the U.S. military fight the Sunni militant group al-Qaida in Iraq, said Ayad Jabouri, a local tribal sheik and member of the country's largest Sunni political party. The U.S. command ordered an immediate investigation.
"Commanders have since briefed local leaders on the results of the investigation and expressed their deep regret," Buckner said. "They have also undertaken disciplinary action against the soldier who was involved, and he has been removed from Iraq."
The military did not release the name of the shooter or detail how he would be disciplined, saying that the case was still being adjudicated.
A CNN crew was present when Army Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. troops in Baghdad, met Saturday with tribal leaders in Radwaniyah to offer a personal apology before a crowd of angry protesters.
"I am a man of honor. I am a man of character. You have my word, this will never happen again," Hammond was quoted as saying in the CNN report. "In the most humble manner, I look in your eyes today, and I say please forgive me and my soldiers."
Col. Ted Martin, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, then presented the tribal leaders with a new Quran, which he kissed and touched to his forehead.
Jabouri said local sheiks had accepted the apology.
"Muslims and Arabs are targeted everywhere in the world," he said. "The apology was very important to calm people down and convince them that not all soldiers, not all Americans, have the same opinion of Islam."
Haider Fakhrildeen, a Shiite member of parliament's religious affairs committee, said he did not expect the matter to escalate.
"We in the religious affairs committee will write a statement of denunciation, which will be distributed to parliament members with a copy to the media," he said. "We can't do more than that because the soldier was punished and this case will be considered as the behavior of an individual."
Had the U.S. military not acted quickly, the affront to a revered Islamic symbol could have been deeply damaging to its relations in Iraq. The publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad caused riots across the Muslim world in 2006.
U.S. commanders in Iraq have spent months persuading Sunni communities to help them fight al-Qaida in Iraq.
Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.