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Afghans won't accept U.S. justice for Koran blunder: cleric

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans will never accept U.S. justice for five American soldiers involved in burning copies of the Koran, and could rise up in a “storm of fury” if there is no public trial, a senior cleric said on Saturday.

The burning of Korans at a NATO air base has incensed the Muslim nation and sparked protests, complicating efforts by the United States to forge a long-term security pact with Afghanistan ahead of an end-2014 foreign combat troop pullout.

“The military leaders who ordered the burning and the offenders should both be tried and punished ... This evil crime has been done inside Afghanistan so the punishment must be according to the country’s law,” Qazi Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, head of an Afghan group comprising clerics and parliamentarians investigating the incident, told Reuters.

“Court martial or any punishment within the circle of U.S. military law will never be accepted ... If our demands are disregarded then a storm of fury will rise and wash away the Americans.”

Protests and condemnation erupted last month after Afghan workers found charred copies of the Koran at the Bagram base near Kabul. There are three on-going inquiries into the event.

A joint investigation, conducted by U.S. military officials and members of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, has concluded that five U.S. soldiers were involved, officials said on condition of anonymity on Friday.

U.S. President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have apologized over the burnings. Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence.

The Taliban movement has urged Afghans to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation.

The furor came as NATO officials prepare for a summit in Chicago in May, which is expected to shed light on the West’s course out of Afghanistan after more than 10 years of war.

The Koran incident is only the latest public relations nightmare for the Pentagon in Afghanistan.

The burnings have been a setback to the Western campaign to win over Afghans in order to weaken the Taliban and could have far-reaching effects for U.S. policy ahead of an exit of most foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.

Afghan parliamentarian Mullah Tarakhil, who is also part of the group investigating the incident, said that delaying the trial and sentencing could create further instability. He said 400 copies of the Koran were burned.

“We want an immediate punishment of the offenders so we can heal the wounds of the people hurt by the ignorant Americans,” he said.

Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Michael Georgy and Sanjeev Miglani