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Newsweek editor apologizes for Quran story

Monday, May 16, 2005

NEW YORK -- Newsweek magazine has apologized for errors in a story alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Quran, saying it would re-examine the accusations, which sparked outrage and deadly protests in Afghanistan.

Fifteen people died and scores were injured in violence between protesters and security forces, prompting U.S. promises to investigate the allegations. After Muslim leaders in several countries assailed the United States over the allegations, Pentagon officials blamed Newsweek for the flare-up and accused it of "irresponsible" reporting.

"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," Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in a note to readers.

In an issue dated May 9, the magazine reported that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that interrogators placed copies of Islam's holy book in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk.

Whitaker wrote that the magazine's information came from "a knowledgeable U.S. government source," and before it published the item, writers Michael Isikoff and John Barry sought comment from two Defense Department officials. One declined to respond, and the other challenged another part of the story but did not dispute the Quran charge, Whitaker said.

But on Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told the magazine that a review of the military's investigation concluded "it was never meant to look into charges of Quran desecration." The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them 'not credible.'"

Whitaker added that the magazine's original source later said he could not be sure he read about the alleged Quran incident in the report Newsweek cited, and that it might have been in another document.

"Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we," Whitaker wrote.

Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman said the magazine believes it erred in reporting the allegation that a prison guard tried to flush the Koran down a toilet and that military investigators had confirmed the accusation.

"The issue here is to get the truth out, to acknowledge as quickly as possible what happened, and that's what we're trying to do," Klaidman told the "CBS Evening News" on Sunday.

Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in a statement that the original story was "demonstrably false" and "irresponsible," and "had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world."

"Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny," Whitman said. "Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

After Newsweek published the story, demonstrations spread across Afghanistan and Muslims around the world decried the alleged desecration.

In Afghanistan, Islamic scholars and tribal elders called for the punishment of anyone found to have abused the Quran, said Maulawi Abdul Wali Arshad, head of the religious affairs department in Badakhshan province.

Arshad and the provincial police chief said the scholars met in Faizabad, 310 miles northeast of the capital, Kabul, and demanded a "reaction" from U.S. authorities within three days.

Lebanon's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric on Sunday said the reported desecration of the Quran is part of an American campaign aimed at disrespecting and smearing Islam.

In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah called the alleged desecration a "brutal" form of torture and urged Muslims and international human rights organizations "to raise their voices loudly against the American behavior."

On Saturday, Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, both allies of Washington, demanded an investigation and punishment for those behind the reported desecration of the Quran.

The story also sparked protests in Pakistan, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. The 22-nation Arab League issued a statement saying if the allegations panned out, Washington should apologize to Muslims.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said in an interview for CNN's "Late Edition" that the allegations were being investigated "vigorously."

"If it turns out to be true, obviously we will take action against those responsible," he said.


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