Washington, Apr 19 : There has been outrage across the US over American soldiers posing for photographs with the severed bodies of Taliban suicide bombers in Afghanistan, after the newspaper Los Angeles Times published the pictures taken in 2010.
In one picture, grinning US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were shown holding up the severed legs of a Taliban suicide bomber.
Others taken several months later show paratroopers in the same platoon posing with the bodies of three insurgents who had accidently blown themselves up with a roadside bomb.
Two soldiers are seen holding a corpse's hand with the middle finger raised while, in another photo, a soldier smirks as the still-attached hand of one of the dead men rests on his shoulder.
In another image, a soldier holds his unit's unofficial badge – which reads ‘Zombie Hunter' – next to a corpse.
The photos, taken in 2010 in the Taliban stronghold of Zabul province, were among 18 passed to the Los Angeles Times by a soldier. The newspaper has published two so far.
Its source said he wanted to highlight a breakdown in leadership and discipline among troops engaged in the bloody conflict with the Taliban.
The paratroopers' 3,500-strong brigade lost 35 men during its year-long tour. Nearly all of them were killed by homemade explosives or suicide bombers.
The Los Angeles Times said it received 18 pictures from a solider with the 82nd Airborne division - who provided them on condition of anonymity - and after strong consideration made the decision to print a selection this morning.
The photographs show a number of paratroopers smiling as they pose with Afghan police next to the severed legs of one suicide bomber. Another shows the hand of a dead, wide-eyed Afghan man on the shoulder of a grinning U.S. marine.
By way of explanation, Times editor Davan Maharaj explained why the paper ran with the photos: 'After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.'
This decision has been condemned by officials as it comes at a time when relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan are particularly sensitive due to a string of damaging and embarrassing episodes which have taken place since the start of the year.
According to the Times, the paratroopers were told to check that Afghan police had recovered the mangled remains of a suicide bomber in February 2010 and to collect iris scans and fingerprints for identification.
After they arrived at the police station in Zabol province, they did what was required but took things one step further - they posed beside the severed legs of the suicide bomber as two Afghan policemen hold them up for the camera.
Months later, the same platoon were sent to investigate the remains of three insurgents who were said to have accidentally blown themselves up.
The same thing was required from them, collect the identities of the bodies, ensure the remains had been recovered. The platoon was able to obtain some fingerprints from the corpses for a database maintained by U.S. forces.
Again the soldiers pose for photographs, with one holding a dead man's hand with the middle finger raised. Another soldier leans over the wide-eyed bearded corpse while clutching the man's hand.
Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading 'Zombie Hunter' next to other remains and took a picture, according to the Times.
Before the pictures were even released, Gen Allen released a statement saying: 'The actions of the individuals photographed do not represent the policies of ISAF or the U.S. Army. This behavior and these images are entirely inconsistent with the values of ISAF and all service members of the fifty ISAF countries serving in Afghanistan.
'We continue to work with our Afghan and international partners to resolve any issues related to improper treatment of remains. This incident is being thoroughly investigated by U.S. national authorities.
'These actions undermine the daily sacrifices of thousands of ISAF troops who continue to serve honorably in Afghanistan.
'We will collaborate with Afghan authorities and carefully examine the facts and circumstances shown in these photos. As part of this process, we will determine responsibility and accountability of those involved.'
The solider who provided the pictures tried to explain the actions of the men in his division by saying all of them had friends or comrades who were killed or wounded by homemade bombs or suicide attacks.
In the February 2010 mission, the solider said the Afghan police willingly posed with the platoon and the severed legs because the suicide bomber's explosives detonated as he tried to attack a police unit.
On the second mission, to the morgue in Qalat a few months later, Afghan police told the platoon that explosives had detonated as three insurgents were preparing a roadside bomb, according to the soldier.
He told the paper the men felt 'satisfaction' after learning they were killed by their own explosives.
'They were frustrated, just pissed off, their buddies had been blown up by IEDs. So they sort of just celebrated.'
Lt Col Margaret Kageleiry, an Army spokeswoman, told the LA Times most of the soldiers had been identified and 'appropriate action' was being taken.
The U.S. government condemned the photos, with its ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, calling the behaviour shown in the pictures ‘morally repugnant'.
Leon Panetta, the U.S. defence secretary, promised that those involved would be punished – but also criticised the LA Times for ignoring a request from the Pentagon not to publish the photos.
A U.S. defence department spokesman said the photos were not representative of its forces, but warned that they had the ‘potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties'.
He said the U.S. military had taken the ‘necessary precautions to protect our troops in the event of any backlash'.
The U.S. commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen, said there was a strict policy for the handling of enemy remains that dictates they must be processed as humanely as possible.
The pictures, which could also have dangerous repercussions for the 9,500 British servicemen in Afghanistan, mark the latest in a string of scandals that have poisoned U.S.-Afghan relations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney says the soldiers' conduct does not represent the standards of the U.S. military and added the president believes the situation needs to be investigated and those responsible should be held accountable.
He said the president is also 'disappointed with the decision to publish...two years after the incident'.
Meanwhile Mr Panetta apologised for the photos at a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels and said he 'strongly condemns' the behavior displayed, but said that in war, 'people can make foolish decisions'.
He added that he is not excusing the behavior but does not want the incident to bring more harm to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.