WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday condemned a video that apparently shows U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghan men, footage that the Pentagon acknowledged did not appear to be fake.
"I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable," Panetta said in a statement, adding that he had ordered the Marine Corps and the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan to investigate the incident.
"Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent," he said.
The video that surfaced a day earlier appeared to show American forces urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. It could aggravate anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan as the Obama administration hopes to end a decade-long war.
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.
The video comes at a sensitive moment for the Obama administration, which is about to launch a flurry of diplomatic efforts it hopes will kindle peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
How the video will affect that initiative is unclear.
A senior member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council said it would undermine the peace efforts, but a Taliban spokesman said it was accustomed to such "brutality" and suggested the video would not affect existing discussions.
The U.S. Marine Corps has said it will investigate. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan described the acts depicted in the video as "disrespectful" and "inexplicable".
Although the U.S. military has stopped short of confirming the video is authentic, the Pentagon on Thursday came close.
"We don't have any indication that it's not authentic," Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said.
"It certainly appears to us to be what it appears to be to you guys... troops urinating on corpses. But there's an investigation process ongoing. We need to let that work its way through to determine all the facts of the case."