WASHINGTON The Marine Corps took a first, formal step on Friday toward possible charges against four troops who, in a video widely circulated on television and the Internet, appear to be urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters.
The Corps named a lead investigating officer whose job would include deciding what charges, if any, would be brought against the four men - all of whom have been identified, a Corps official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
None of the suspects have been detained, the official said. At least two are still part of the same unit involved in the video - the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, based out of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, a second official told Reuters.
That unit served in Afghanistan's Helmand province from March until September of 2011, the second official said.
Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said in a statement on Friday he would not "rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved."
The video, posted on YouTube and other websites, shows four men in camouflage Marine combat uniforms urinating on three corpses. One of them jokes: "Have a nice day, buddy." Another makes a lewd joke.
Reuters has been unable to verify that the dead men were indeed Taliban fighters, but the Marines said the video appeared to depict "several dead Taliban."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the video, describing the men's actions as "inhuman" and calling for an investigation.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telephoned Karzai to denounce the actions in the video as "deplorable," and General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, said actions depicted in the video were illegal.
It is likely that other people beyond the four will be brought into the investigation, including the individual who filmed the desecration of the dead and whoever else may have been watching off-camera.
The Marine Corps said the lead investigating officer, known in military-speak as the "Consolidated Disposition Authority," was Lieutenant General Waldhause, the commander of Marine Corps Forces Central Command.
The video is likely to stir up already strong anti-U.S. sentiment in Afghanistan after a decade of a war that has seen past cases of abuse. That could complicate efforts to promote reconciliation as foreign troops gradually withdraw, although a Taliban spokesman on Thursday said it would not harm nascent efforts to broker peace talks.
The Pentagon has moved quickly to respond to the video, a move that Panetta says he hopes will limit fallout.
"The danger obviously is this kind of video could be misused in many ways not only to undermine what we are trying to do in Afghanistan but undermine the potential for reconciliation. There is a danger there," Panetta told reporters on a trip to Texas on Thursday.
"But I think if we move quickly - if we conduct this investigation and hold these people accountable - we send a clear signal to the world that the U.S. is not going to tolerate that kind of behavior and it doesn't represent the United States as a whole."
Officials tell Reuters that the Marine Corps is confident the video is authentic but the Pentagon has so far stopped short of formally confirming it is an accurate depiction of what happened.
News of the footage had yet to really spread in Afghanistan - a country where a minority has access to electricity and the Internet is limited to a tiny urban elite.
Anti-American feeling has boiled over, or been whipped up, into violence several times in Afghanistan in recent years. Protests over reports of the desecration of the Muslim holy book have twice sparked deadly riots.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)