An Afghan Abu Ghraib? America shamed by 'kill squad' photo leak

The US Army has been forced into an acutely embarrassing apology after photographs emerged of American soldiers posing with the corpses of Afghan civilians in scenes reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq war.

In one picture, a US soldier grins wolfishly for the camera while gripping a corpse's hair, pulling back its head like a hunting trophy, in what could become an enduring image of how the West lost its way in Afghanistan.

The picture, one of three published by the German news weekly Der Spiegel, has forced the US Army into a rare public apology and attempts to distance itself from a handful of rogue troops who are charged with killing Afghan civilians for fun. The photographs depict "actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army", it said in a statement yesterday. "We apologise for the distress these photos cause."

The US military had tried to suppress the photos, which are part of the evidence seized in a case against 12 US soldiers accused of crimes ranging from murder to hoarding body parts as trophies, and which it believes could incite riots and attacks on its personnel in Afghanistan.

But the magazine, which says it obtained access to about 4,000 pictures and videos pertaining to the case, argued that it was important to publish a "tiny" number of them in order to document a war in which all sides had "lost sight" of their original objectives.

The case has drawn parallels with the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which US military police, CIA officers and private contractors abused, tortured and in one instance killed prisoners in their care. In both cases the perpetrators recorded their crimes on camera. The Abu Ghraib incident led to a furious public reaction in Iraq.

In the Afghanistan case, that anger has yet to materialise. Most of the country was shut down for the Nowruz holiday yesterday and there has been no government reaction so far. Some Afghanistan experts believe that most Afghans are so inured to images of violence, and so cynical about the foreign intervention in their country, that the publication of the "kill squad" photos will have little effect. Nonetheless, Nato and security advisers still fear a backlash.

The accused – soldiers from the US 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – are alleged to have made their first killing in January 2010 on a patrol in Kandahar province. Prosecutors claim that Specialist Jeremy Morlock threw a grenade at a young Afghan man, Gul Mudin, in a pre-meditated plan to frame him as an assailant. Following the explosion the American soldiers fired eight shots, killing him.

At this point Morlock is supposed to have posed with the dead body. His court martial hearing begins this week. Morlock has already agreed to plead guilty to murder, conspiracy and other charges, and to testify against his co-defendants in return for a maximum sentence of 24 years in jail.

His lawyers have said that while he might be "physically responsible" for his crimes, "the people who are morally responsible are the American leaders who have us in the wrong war at the wrong time".

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