(AP) Newsweek magazine, under fire for publishing a story that led to deadly protests in Afghanistan, said Monday it was retracting its report that a military probe had found evidence of desecration of the Quran by U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay.
Earlier Monday, Bush administration officials had brushed off an apology that Newsweek’s editor Mark Whitaker had made in an editor’s note and criticized the magazine’s handling of the story.
“It’s appalling that this story got out there,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as she traveled home from Iraq.
“People lost their lives. People are dead,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. “People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do.”
Following the criticism, Whitaker released a statement through a spokesman later Monday saying the magazine was retracting the article.
“Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay,” Whitaker said.
Newsweek had reported in its issue dated May 9 that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that interrogators placed copies of Islam’s holy book in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk.
Whitaker wrote in his note to readers that “We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.”
Whitaker said in his editor’s note that while other news organizations had aired charges of Quran abuse based on the testimony of detainees, the magazine decided to publish a short item after hearing from an unnamed U.S. official that a government probe had found evidence corroborating the charges.
But on Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told the magazine that a review of the military’s investigation concluded “it was never meant to look into charges of Quran desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them ‘not credible.'”
Whitaker added that the magazine’s original source later said he could not be sure he read about the alleged Quran incident in the report Newsweek cited, and that it might have been in another document.
“Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we,” Whitaker wrote.
Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman said the magazine believes it erred in reporting the allegation that a prison guard tried to flush the Quran down a toilet and that military investigators had confirmed the accusation.
“The issue here is to get the truth out, to acknowledge as quickly as possible what happened, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Klaidman told the “CBS Evening News” on Sunday.
Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies in Afghanistan.
In a statement, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the original story was “demonstrably false” and “irresponsible,” and “had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world.”
“Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny,” Whitman said. “Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations.”
After Newsweek published the story, demonstrations spread across Afghanistan and Muslims around the world decried the alleged desecration.
In Afghanistan, Islamic scholars and tribal elders called for the punishment of anyone found to have abused the Quran, said Maulawi Abdul Wali Arshad, head of the religious affairs department in Badakhshan province.
Arshad and the provincial police chief said the scholars met in Faizabad, 310 miles northeast of the capital, Kabul, and demanded a “reaction” from U.S. authorities within three days.
Lebanon’s most senior Shiite Muslim cleric on Sunday said the reported desecration of the Quran is part of an American campaign aimed at disrespecting and smearing Islam.
In a statement faxed to The Associated Press, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah called the alleged desecration a “brutal” form of torture and urged Muslims and international human rights organizations “to raise their voices loudly against the American behavior.”
On Saturday, Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, both allies of Washington, demanded an investigation and punishment for those behind the reported desecration of the Quran.
The story also sparked protests in Pakistan, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. The 22-nation Arab League issued a statement saying if the allegations panned out, Washington should apologize to Muslims.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said in an interview for CNN’s “Late Edition” that the allegations were being investigated “vigorously.”
“If it turns out to be true, obviously we will take action against those responsible,” he said.
Newsweek is owned by The Washington Post Co.