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US soldier removed from Iraq for shooting Quran

Military brass hold "apology ceremony" for Iraqi leaders

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A U.S. soldier has been expelled from Iraq for shooting a Quran during target practice, the American military said on Sunday as a top general apologized for the desecration that triggered protests.

The unidentified soldier was disciplined after Iraqi police discovered the Quran, the Muslim holy book, with bullet holes and graffiti inside its cover last week at a firing range west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

Major General Jeffrey Hammond, the top commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, met community leaders from Radhwaniya in the capital's western outskirts and issued a "formal apology," the CNN network said.

"I come before you here seeking your forgiveness," Hammond told tribal leaders on Saturday. "In the most humble manner I look in your eyes today and I say please forgive me and my soldiers."

Another military official kissed a Quran and presented it as "a humble gift" to the tribal leaders during an "apology ceremony," CNN said, adding that the soldier had also apologized.

"I sincerely hope that my actions have not diminished the partnership that our two nations have developed together," Hammond said, quoting from a letter written by the soldier.

"My actions were short-sighted, very reckless and irresponsible, but in my heart (was not) malicious," the soldier was quoted as saying.

Tribal leaders, dignitaries and local security officials attended the ceremony, while residents carried banners and chanted slogans including "Yes, yes to the Quran" and "America out, out," CNN said.

The soldier, a staff sergeant, was removed from Iraq following a preliminary investigation.

"The soldier in question is being disciplined due to his actions in...shooting a Quran," a U.S. military official told AFP. "We hold all of our soldiers fully accountable for their actions."

A sign of US hate against Muslims

"Coalition commanders have since briefed local leaders on the results of the investigation and expressed their deep regret," Buckner said.

"They have also undertaken disciplinary action against the soldier who was involved and he has been removed from Iraq."

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq condemned the desecration.

"This heinous crime shows the hatred the leaders and the members of the occupying force have against the Quran and the (Muslim) people," it said in a statement seen by AFP.

It called the shooting a "premeditated despicable act" and held both the U.S. military and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responsible. There was no immediate reaction from Maliki's government.

"Everyone is reminded that God protects his book and his revenge is strong," the scholars said.

There had been allegations of attacks against mosques since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, but the latest incident is one of the most serious known desecrations of a holy symbol.