Top U.S. officials have condemned as "deplorable" a video depicting what appears to be U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he has ordered an investigation into the video, which threatens to deepen anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan.
Panetta promised that the soldiers who took part in the incident will be held accountable “to the fullest extent.”
Officials said the investigation would likely consider whether the Marines violated laws of war, which include a ban on photographing bodies and a range of other rules.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Panetta condemning what she described as "deplorable behavior."
"It is absolutely inconsistent with American values," she said, "[and] with the standards of behavior that we expect from our military personnel and that the vast, vast majority of our military personnel -- particularly our marines -- hold themselves to."
A spokesman for NATO's coalition forces in Afghanistan told reporters from Kabul that the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) would support the U.S. investigation.
German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson also described the video as "very much working against our cause."
"Any sort of [video], any sort of activity of this kind that is grossly against all the moral values that the coalition forces are standing for... and that we are here for," he said.
Meanwhile in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the incident "completely inhumane," while the Afghan Defense Ministry called it "shocking."
According to the White House, Panetta called Karzai today discuss the matter.
Marc Grossman, the U.S. envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, is due to meet Karzai in Kabul this weekend.
The video, which was uploaded to YouTube and others sites, shows four men with U.S. military uniforms, military rifles, and Kevlar helmets. Speaking with American accents, they laugh as they urinate on the bodies of three bearded men stretched out on the ground near a mud-brick wall.
One of the men laughs and says "in the heart" as he urinates on the chest of one of the corpses. "Have a great day, buddy," another says sarcastically.
Senior Marine and military officials who requested anonymity told news agencies that at least two of the four men seen in the video had been identified.
The officials said the men were from a Marine unit based at Camp Lejeune in the state of North Carolina. The unit returned from Afghanistan late last year.
Taliban: 'Barbaric' Footage
The video comes at a sensitive moment, with Washington trying to promote Afghan reconciliation just as U.S. troops gradually withdraw from the country. The Taliban earlier this month agreed to set up a political office in Qatar for negotiations with the international community, but also demanded the release of its prisoners from the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay
as a form of prisoner exchange.
Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid today denounced the footage as "barbaric." But Reuters quotes Mujahid as saying "the video will not harm our talks and prisoner exchange" because the political process is in the preliminary stages. He said Taliban fighters will, in the meantime, continue their armed struggle.
The footage has outraged many Afghans, regardless of their views on the Taliban. Kandahar resident Amanullah says it damages prospects for peace talks.
"We condemn this action by U.S. soldiers who have urinated on the dead bodies of Taliban fighters. It will harm the peace talks," Amanullah said. "It seems that the United States never wants peace talks to happen in Afghanistan, and this action will increase misery in the country."
In Washington, Clinton today pledged to continue to support Afghan-led efforts to reconcile with the Taliban.
One Kabul resident, Feda Mohammad, says anti-American sentiments in Afghanistan have been aggravated.
"The U.S. soldiers who urinated on the dead bodies of Muslims have committed a crime," Mohammad said. "Since they have committed such a crime, we don't want them anymore on our soil. We don't like foreign soldiers to be on our soil. They have to leave."
Another Kandahar resident, Tawab Khan, says the perpetrators should be identified and put on trial.
"All of us Muslims condemn this action by foreign soldiers, who have urinated on the bodies of Taliban fighters. It is against Islam and the international community's role," Khan said. "We want the Human Rights Commission to prosecute this brutal action and arrest the criminals of this incident."
Anti-American feelings have boiled over into violence several times in Afghanistan in recent years. Protests over reports of the desecration of the Koran have twice sparked deadly riots.
written by Ron Synovitz and Richard Solash, with agency reports