The Pentagon admitted last night it had substantiated five occasions when US military personnel at Guantanamo Bay prison "mishandled" the Koran of Muslim detainees. But it said it found no credible evidence to confirm a complaint that the Islamic holy book had been flushed down a toilet.
Jay W Hood, the one-star general who commands the detention centre for suspected terrorists on Cuba, refused to give details of the cases of mishandling, saying the incidents, which occurred early in the camp's existence, were still under investigation. That they could be "broadly defined" as mishandling was as far as he would go.
But he told a press conference that a prisoner who reportedly complained to an FBI agent that a military guard had thrown a Koran into a toilet told Brig-Gen Hood's team that he had only been told of the incident, and had never witnessed any form of desecration at first hand.
The admission by the military is the latest twist in an affair which began with a claim in the 9 May issue of Newsweek magazine that a Pentagon internal report had concluded that a Koran had been flushed in a toilet, as alleged by several detainees after their release from Guantanamo Bay.
The report contributed to riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was then challenged by the Bush adminstration. After checking with the unnamed official who gave the tip, the magazine acknowledged the report was mistaken. It formally retracted the story in much embarrassment, but not before more damage had been inflicted on the tattered reputation of the US across the Islamic world.
However, controversy flared again with the publication of FBI documents on Wednesday, recording further allegations from detainees that the Koran had been desecrated. Last night's appearance by Brig-Gen Hood was in response to these documents, unearthed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which campaigns against prison abuse.
"I'd like you to know that we have found no credible evidence that a member of the Joint Task Force at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed a Koran down a toilet," Brig-Gen Hood said. But 13 incidents of alleged mishandling of the Koran had been identified. Of the alleged incidents, five were substantiated, he said.
Nonetheless, his account is likely only to fuel controversy over the base, described this week by Amnesty International as a "Gulag". It may also partly restore the reputation of Newsweek, after its scolding by the White House and Pentagon. It increasingly seems the magazine, while slipping up over an important detail, was correct in the broad picture it presented of Guantanamo Bay.
* The Senate delayed confirming John Bolton last night as President Bush's nominee to be the US ambassador to the UN. Republican supporters of Mr Bolton failed to secure the 60 votes needed to end floor debate. Mr Bolton is, however, likely to be confirmed early next month.Reuse content