WASHINGTON The White House on Sunday expressed its concern over a reported shooting of Afghan civilians by a U.S. serviceman, which is likely to inflame tensions between the two countries and could incite violent reprisals.
"We are deeply concerned by the initial reports of this incident and are monitoring the situation closely," said White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
Only one U.S. soldier appears to have been involved in Sunday's shooting of Afghan civilians, a U.S. official said, the latest incident that is sure to strain U.S.-Afghan relations and inflame public opinion in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Defense Ministry said that Western forces killed 15 civilians in a shooting spree in southern Kandahar province.
A senior U.S. defense official said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "was deeply saddened to hear last night of this incident and is closely monitoring reports out of Afghanistan."
Senior Republican and Democratic senators called the situation tragic but said it should not change U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
"I think we're on the right track to get out just as soon as we can," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"I think our timetable is pretty good for moving out as the president said and I think it's the right thing to do."
Reid said the soldier's actions were "absolutely wrong" and that it was "very sad, especially following that incident dealing with the Koran," referring to the incident in which U.S. troops burned copies of Islam's holy book at a base in Afghanistan last month
Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham also said the incident should not be used as a reason to speed up the timeline for removing troops from Afghanistan while condemning the soldier's actions.
"I understand the anger and the sorrow," McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Fox News Sunday.
"I also understand that we should not forget that the attacks on the United States of America on 9/11 originated in Afghanistan and if Afghanistan dissolved into a situation where the Taliban were able to take over or a chaotic situation it could easily return to an al Qaeda base for attacks on the United States of America."
Graham said he was confident the soldier will be brought to justice.
"This is tragic and will be investigated," Graham said on ABC's This Week. "Unfortunately, these things happen in war."
Conservative Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich voiced a very different view of the U.S. role, saying Washington should consider pulling out of Afghanistan and reconsider its role in the entire region.
"There's something profoundly wrong with the way we're approaching the whole region and I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better. And I think that we're risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable," Gingrich said on "Fox News Sunday."
Gingrich is battling front-runner Mitt Romney and second place Rick Santorum to be selected as the party's nominee to face President Barack Obama in the November election.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan, Dave Clarke and Vicki Allen; Editing by Bill Trott and Jackie Frank)