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Muslims doubt Quran climbdown


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Protesters burn a U.S. flag Sunday in Peshawar, Pakistan.
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Newsweek backs off a story blamed for unrest in Muslim countries.

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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan were skeptical after a U.S. magazine backed away from a report that U.S. interrogators desecrated copies of the Quran while questioning prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The account in Newsweek magazine's May 9 issue has been blamed for sparking deadly riots in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world.

On Sunday, Newsweek backed away from the report and offered its sympathies "to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst." (Full story)

But Muslims said they suspected that pressure from Washington was behind the magazine's climbdown, Reuters reported Monday.

"We will not be deceived by this," Islamic cleric Mullah Sadullah Abu Aman told Reuters in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan.

"This is a decision by America to save itself. It comes because of American pressure. Even an ordinary illiterate peasant understands this and won't accept it."

On Sunday, a group of clerics led by Aman vowed to call for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States in three days unless it handed over the interrogators reported to have desecrated the Quran.

He said the call for a holy war still stood. In the May 9 story, Newsweek cited sources as saying investigators looking into abuses at the military prison found interrogators "had placed Qurans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the toilet."

CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said "desecrating the Quran is a death-penalty offense" in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

The Pentagon said last week it was unable to corroborate any case in which interrogators at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, defiled the Muslim holy book, as Newsweek reported.

At least 15 people were killed and dozens injured last week when thousands of demonstrators marched in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world, officials and eyewitnesses said.

"Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we," Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in the magazine's May 23 issue, out Sunday.

"But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

Some Afghans, however, were unconvinced.

"It's not acceptable now that the magazine says it's made a mistake," Reuters quoted 42-year-old writer and journalist Hafizullah Torab as saying. "No one will accept it."

Sayed Elyas Sedaqat, who heads a cultural group in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where the protests began last Tuesday, said: "Possibly, the American government put pressure on the magazine to issue the retraction to avoid the anger of Muslims."

In neighboring Pakistan, a religious party said it was going ahead with a call for protests on May 27.

"Newsweek is backtracking, but it's not just their report," said Ghaffar Aziz, a top official of the Jamaat-e-Islami party. "All innocent people released from U.S. custody have said on the record that there was desecration of the Koran."

A spokesman for the Taliban, who denied any involvement in last week's Afghan protests, said the original report was true.

"Newsweek is changing its story because of pressure from the U.S. government," Abdul Latif Hakimi told Reuters by telephone.

In Kabul, the U.S. military said it must reach out to the people of Afghanistan in the aftermath of last week's deadly demonstrations. (Full story)

"We want to redouble our efforts to communicate with the Afghan people," said Col. Gary Cheek with the U.S. Army in Kabul. "We want to ensure there is trust and confidence in the U.S."

Despite Newsweek's partial retraction, Cheek promised to re-evaluate U.S. military tactics being used in Afghanistan that have drawn criticism from Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai.

"We continually review our tactics and certainly as the sovereignty of the Afghan government grows they will want more control, and that is correct and proper," Cheek said.

U.S. forces have been criticized for breaking into homes unannounced and for taking people into custody, sometimes on faulty intelligence.

"It does us no good to detain someone and make 100 enemies," according to Cheek. "We want to be very balanced in our operations. You can't do that through heavy-handed tactics."

Cheek also said the United States wants to engage Afghan religious leaders "to make sure they understand our true values."

CNN's Barbara Starr and journalist Nick Meo contributed to this report


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