An image from a video posted on the Internet shows Marines standing around… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington and Durham, N.C. — Pentagon officials said Thursday they believed a video showing four Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans was authentic, and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta promised to investigate the incident, calling it "utterly deplorable.''
As outrage over the explicit video spread, the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan said the behavior was confined to "a small group of U.S. individuals" who committed a blatant violation of military standards. Those found responsible will be "held accountable to the fullest extent," Panetta said in a statement.
Panetta called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to assure him of a thorough investigation, the Pentagon said. Karzai, who has bitterly criticized the actions of U.S. and coalition forces, called the behavior on the video "simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms."
The video emerged on Internet sites at a delicate moment, just as the U.S. is trying to continue preliminary talks with Taliban representatives on finding ways to end the war. Like the notorious images of U.S. troops abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the video undermines U.S. counter-insurgency efforts, which rely on winning the support of the civilian population.
Taliban spokesmen condemned the video as barbaric but gave no immediate indication that it would derail the talks. Taliban fighters have committed countless atrocities against Afghan civilians and are responsible for more than 80% of civilian deaths, the United Nations said.
The Marines were from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., according to an officer at the Pentagon. The unit served in Helmand province in Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold and poppy-growing center, between March and September last year.
The men on the video were described as scouts or snipers, members of an elite unit. The faces of three Marines are clearly shown, making them easily identifiable to unit members, family and friends. Pentagon officials said they had identified all four.
The video shows the Marines, wearing combat uniforms and carrying weapons, laughing as they urinate on three corpses, one of them bloodied. It was not clear whether the dead men were Taliban fighters or civilians.
"Have a great day, buddy," one Marine says on the video. The voice of one Marine appears to refer to a "shower" for the corpses.
A voice asks, "You got it on the video?"
Another voice replies, "Yeah."
On its website, the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines describes its mission as "locate, close with and destroy the enemy." Seven Marines from the battalion were killed during its most recent tour in Afghanistan.
It is not clear how the video, which appears to have been made on a cellphone, was posted to the Internet. One of the first sites it appeared on was LiveLeak, based in Britain. The LiveLeak video was uploaded by a user under the name Crazyhawk, who hosts other amateur videos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan that appear to have been shot by someone traveling with the units.
Panetta ordered the Marine Corps and the NATO coalition commander, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, to launch investigations. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Marine Corps had asked the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for a "thorough investigation" and promised full accountability.
President Obama is aware of the video and "shares in the sentiments expressed by Secretary Panetta," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
In a statement, the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan said the behavior "dishonors the sacrifices and core values of every service member representing the 50 nations of the coalition."
Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said he had ordered a Marine officer and an attorney, both with extensive combat experience, to begin a preliminary internal investigation.
"The behavior depicted in the video is wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history," Amos said. He said the Marine Corps was dedicated to upholding the Geneva Conventions.
The Marines involved could be prosecuted under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. That article states that it is a violation to engage in "conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."
Punishment for violating Article 134 is not spelled out, Fidell said, but would be determined by a military court-martial.
The Marines could also be charged under Article 92, which includes failure to obey an order and dereliction of duty — serious violations, said Elizabeth Hillman, a professor at Hastings College of the Law at the University of California and president of the National Institute of Military Justice. Conviction of violating Article 92 could bring two years in prison, she said.