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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) 11th May 2008 — A soldier used the Quran — Islam’s holy book — for target practice, forcing the chief U.S. commander in Baghdad to issue a formal apology on Saturday.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, flanked by leaders from Radhwaniya in the western outskirts of Baghdad, apologized for the staff sergeant who was a sniper section leader assigned to the headquarters of the 64th Armored Regiment. He also read a letter of apology by the shooter.
It was the first time the incident — which tested the relationship between U.S.-backed Sunni militiamen and the military — was made public since it was discovered May 11.
“I come before you here seeking your forgiveness,” Hammond said to tribal leaders and others at the apology ceremony. “In the most humble manner I look in your eyes today and I say please forgive me and my soldiers.”
Another military official kissed a Quran and presented it as “a humble gift” to the tribal leaders.
The soldier, whose name was not released, shot at a Quran on May 9, villagers said. The Quran used in the incident was discovered two days later, according to the military.
Hammond also read from the shooter’s letter: “I sincerely hope that my actions have not diminished the partnership that our two nations have developed together. … My actions were shortsighted, very reckless and irresponsible, but in my heart [the actions] were not malicious.”
A tribal leader said “the criminal act by U.S. forces” took place at a shooting range at the Radhwaniya police station. After the shooters left, an Iraqi policeman found a target marked in the middle of the bullet-riddled Quran.
Copies of the pictures of the Quran obtained by CNN show multiple bullet holes and an expletive scrawled on one of its pages.
A military investigation found the shooter guilty and relieved him of duty; he will be redeployed to the United States for reassignment away from the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, a U.S. official said.
“The actions of one soldier were nothing more than criminal behavior,” Hammond said. “I’ve come to this land to protect you, to support you — not to harm you — and the behavior of this soldier was nothing short of wrong and unacceptable.”
Officials said the soldier claimed he wasn’t aware the book was the Quran. U.S. officials rejected the claim.
Tribal leaders, dignitaries and local security officials attended the ceremony, while residents carried banners and chanted slogans, including “Yes, yes to the Quran” and “America out, out.”
Sheikh Hamadi al-Qirtani, in a speech on behalf of all tribal sheiks of Radhwaniya, called the incident “aggression against the entire Islamic world.”
The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq also condemned the shooter’s actions and the U.S. military’s belated acknowledgment of the incident.
“As the Association of Muslim Scholars condemns this heinous crime against God’s holy book, the Constitution of this nation, a source of pride and dignity,” the groups statement said, “they condemned the silence by all those who are part of the occupation’s agenda and holds the occupation and the current government fully responsible for this violation and reminds everyone that God preserves his book and he [God] is a great avenger.”