Allegations that US guards at the 'war on terror' detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba threw Korans in the toilet surfaced more than a year ago but it was not until this week when riots broke out in Afghanistan that the US military ordered an investigation.
So far, no evidence has been found to support the alleged desecration, senior US defense officials said.
"We'll do our best to establish any veracity behind this. I don't even want to call it an allegation. It's an alleged allegation," said Lawrence DiRita, the Pentagon spokesman. "We've not seen any specific allegation. We've seen an article in a news magazine that says this may have happened."
A report in Newsweek magazine last week said interrogators allegedly tried to flush a Koran down a toilet to rattle Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo.
Four days of riots in Afghanistan that have left 14 people dead and over 100 injured, the worst episode of anti-American protests since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Defense officials said General Bantz Craddock, head of the US Southern Command, ordered an investigation on Tuesday, the day protests erupted in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
But the Newsweek report was only the latest in a series of allegations by detainees that go back at least to March 2004 when three British detainees were released from Guantanamo.
The three Britons alleged in a joint statement that Guantanamo guards kicked and threw around prison-issued Korans and on occasion threw them in buckets that served as toilets.
"The behavior of the guards towards our religious practices as well as the Koran was also, in my view, designed to cause us as much distress as possible," Asif Iqbal, one of the three, was quoted as saying.
"They would kick the Koran, throw it into the toilet and generally disrespect it. It is clear to me that the conditions in our cells and our general treatment were designed by the officers in charge of the interrogation process to 'soften us up,'" he said.
The treatment of the Koran was one of the issues that prompted hunger strikes at the prison, according to the Britons.
In January, lawyers for Kuwaiti detainees at Guantanamo said after a visit that their clients also described being taunted by guards who on at least one occasion threw a Koran in a toilet.
"Several of our clients did tell us that the guards had desecrated the Koran," Kristine Huskey, one of the lawyers, told AFP.
"At least two stated that the Koran had been thrown in the toilet, another said it had been stepped on and I believe another said it had been thrown by a guard and/or spat on," she said in an e-mail message.
Defense officials said they did not know whether there had been any previous investigations into the allegation.
Huskey said she was certain the military did not look into the allegations at the time.
Lawyers defending Guantanamo detainees have called for an independent investigation.
Pentagon officials said that while no evidence had been found of guards defiling Korans at the camp, investigators did find an entry in an interrogation log that said a guard alleged that a detainee had ripped out pages of a Koran and stuffed it in a toilet as a protest.
"It's early to say how solid that is, but so far there are indications that a detainee may have done something like this," said DiRita.
Amid the violence, military commanders in Afghanistan and the region were carefully tending their relationships in the area, Pentagon officials said.
But they suggested that the violent protests were less a spontaneous upheaval over the allegations than a calculated campaign by an organized opposition.
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Thursday said the US commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, had recounted that the violence appeared to be related to efforts by the Afghan government to bring former Taliban supporters into the political process.
"The nature of where these things occurred, how quickly they occurred, the nature of individuals who were involved in it, suggest that they may be organized events that are using this alleged allegation as a pretext for activity that was already planned," said DiRita.
© 2005 AFP