KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — President Hamid Karzai paid a condolence visit Thursday to a remote western region that was the scene of a controversial American-led operation last month, pleading for forgiveness and assuring villagers that those responsible for civilian deaths would be punished.
The president's visit to the Shindand district of Herat province underscored the lingering ill will over the Aug. 22 airstrike, official accounts of which remain at wide variance.
The U.S. military has acknowledged killing 35 insurgents and seven civilians in the Special Forces strike carried out jointly with Afghan forces in the village of Azizabad; the United Nations and the Afghan government say 90 people were killed, about two-thirds of them children.
Investigations of the incident continue, but none of the parties have substantially altered initial assessments of the number and nature of the casualties.
Karzai's domestic popularity has been plummeting, in part because of disillusionment over the country's slow pace of recovery and continuing violence nearly seven years after the fundamentalist Taliban movement was toppled in a U.S.-led invasion.
With an election planned next year, the Afghan leader has sought to distance himself from some actions by Western troops who are battling an increasingly powerful insurgency and inadvertently causing growing numbers of civilian deaths.
"It has been five years that I have been working days and nights to avoid such incidents, but I was not successful," the president's office quoted Karzai as telling villagers at a mosque in the Shindand district, not far from the site of the raid.
"If I had been successful, the sons of Azizabad would not be steeped in their own blood," said Karzai, who repeated the government's assertion that 90 people had been killed in the strike.
Karzai's office also said Thursday that the Afghan leader had spoken with President Bush a day earlier; it said Bush had expressed sorrow over the Azizabad deaths.
"Both presidents discussed ways of preventing civilian casualties," the statement said. Karzai told villagers that those responsible for the strike "will be brought to justice and punished" but offered no details.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.