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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Newsweek 'Regrets' Report on Quran Insult

NEW YORK -- Newsweek apologized yesterday for printing a small item May 9 about reported desecration of the Quran by U.S. guards at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an item linked to riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to the deaths of at least 17 people. But the magazine, while acknowledging possible errors in the article, stopped short of retracting it.

The report that a Quran had been flushed down a toilet set off the most virulent, widespread anti-American protests in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government more than three years ago.

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Mark Whitaker, Newsweek's editor, wrote in the issue of the magazine that goes on sale at newsstands today.

In an accompanying article, the magazine wrote that its reporters had relied on a U.S. government official, whom it has not identified, who had incomplete knowledge of the situation.

But Whitaker said in an interview later: "We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are."

The information at issue is a sentence in a short "Periscope" item on May 9 about a planned United States Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners at the detention facility in Guantanamo. It said that U.S. military investigators had found evidence in an internal report that during the interrogation of detainees, U.S. guards had flushed a Quran down a toilet as a way of trying to provoke the detainees into talking.

Pentagon officials said that no such information was included in the internal report and responded to Newsweek's apology with unusual anger. Lawrence Di Rita, the top spokesman for the Pentagon, called the editor's note "very tepid and qualified." He added later, "They owe us all a lot more accountability than they took."

In its article published Monday, the magazine said that although the reference to the Quran was a side element in an article, it was worth printing because it had come from a U.S. government official. Other news organizations had written that American guards had desecrated the Koran, Newsweek said, but those reports were based on testimony from former detainees who had been released from Guantanamo.

The magazine said that because of reports of other abuses of prisoners by guards at Guantanamo, the possibility that a Quran was flushed down the toilet did not seem that far-fetched. But it said that to Muslims, such an act was especially inflammatory.

Last Tuesday, students in the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan had started anti-American demonstrations, citing the Newsweek article. It is unclear exactly how the students and other protesters learned of the article, though many Afghans get information from radio programs broadcast in local languages by the Voice of America, BBC and Radio Liberty, which often broadcast foreign news reports.

At a Pentagon news conference last Thursday, reporters asked General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about the incident. He played down the Newsweek connection to the violence, citing an assessment from the senior commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry of the Army.

Myers said it was Eikenberry's view that "the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Quran." He said Eikenberry believed the violence stemmed from the country's reconciliation process.

But some senior Pentagon civilians and military officers in Washington challenged Eikenberry's assessment and said they saw a direct link between the violence and the Newsweek article.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, commenting on the reported desecration after returning home on Saturday from a trip to Europe, said he blamed "enemies of stability" for exploiting student anger about it to foment violence.

Afghans in Ghazni, a city south of Kabul that suffered some of the worst violence, have also said that local "troublemakers" may have taken advantage of the anger to shoot at police.

At his news conference, Myers said that military investigators at Guantanamo were searching their interrogation logs to find the case cited in the Newsweek article.

"They have looked through the logs, the interrogation logs, and they cannot confirm yet that there were ever the case of the toilet incident, except for one case, a log entry, which they still have to confirm, where a detainee was reported by a guard to be ripping pages out of a Quran and putting in the toilet to stop it up as a protest," he said. "But not where the U.S. did it."

This explanation had little or no effect on the demonstrations in Afghanistan, which spread throughout the week, leaving at least 17 civilians dead and many more wounded.

By the end of the week, the military had completed its internal inquiry and was convinced that the allegation as reported by Newsweek never happened and that the article had played a significant role in inciting the violence in Afghanistan, Di Rita said. He informed Newsweek that its report was wrong.