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Newsweek retracts Quran story

U.S. military says it must reach out to Afghans to ease tension

Pedestrians walk past the Newsweek building in New York.
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Newsweek has now retracted its story about Quran desecration.

Newsweek backs off a story blamed for unrest in Muslim countries.

Anti-American protests erupt in Afghanistan.
United States
Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Cuba)

(CNN) -- Newsweek magazine issued a retraction Monday of a May 9 report on the alleged desecration of the Quran at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The report -- which said American interrogators put copies of the Quran on toilets or in one case, flushed one down a toilet -- was blamed for anti-American riots in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world last week.

"Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay," Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said in a statement issued Monday afternoon.

Newsweek published the item in its May 9 issue. In the May 23 issue, it reported that its senior government source had backed away from his initial story, and Whitaker wrote that "we regret" that any part of the story was wrong. (Full story)

But the magazine did not completely disavow the story until Monday's statement from Whitaker. That followed remarks earlier in the day from Bush administration officials who called for a full retraction.

In an interview on the PBS "Newshour" Monday night, Whitaker said the problem stemmed from "one detail."

"There were other elements in this story that people are not concerned about," he told PBS. "This is the one detail everyone is concerned about, and we are prepared to retract that."

Senior White House officials applauded Newsweek's decision to retract the story but said the magazine will have to do more to repair the damage done.

"It's a good first step," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

McClellan said the magazine now has a responsibility to spread the word to the Muslim world that U.S. interrogators "treat the Quran with great care and respect."

Another official said it will take a sustained effort by Newsweek to "mitigate the fallout," also calling on the magazine to take steps to spread the word about its retraction to Muslims worldwide.

CNN confirmed at least four deaths last week stemming from riots in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Newsweek reported rioting in Afghanistan and "throughout much of the Muslim world" last week had "cost at least 15 lives."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the flap was a reminder that people "need to be very careful about what they say."

"People are dead, and that's unfortunate," Rumsfeld told reporters. "People need to be very careful about what they say just as people need to be careful about what they do."

Editor: 'Many elements' in riots

Whitaker disputed the notion the Newsweek report was the sole cause of the rioting that rocked eastern Afghanistan last week.

He said "many elements" contributed and noted that Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week the U.S. commander in Afghanistan put more emphasis on local politics than anti-American sentiment stirred by the magazine report.

"On the other hand, clearly, our report played a role -- and for that we feel terrible," Whitaker said.

He said everyone at Newsweek "behaved professionally" in producing the report, and that the magazine went to the "extraordinary length" of showing the story to a Pentagon official for a response before publication.

"That official challenged other aspects of the story, but not the Quran detail," Whitaker said. He said no U.S. officials complained about the accuracy of the report for 11 days, until after the Afghan riots broke out.

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

"We can't find anything to substantiate the allegations that appeared in Newsweek," Myers told reporters Monday afternoon.

After a review of more than 25,000 documents, Myers said, investigators found only one incident recorded in the prison logs involving a Quran.

In that case, Myers said, a prisoner used pages from a Quran in an attempt to block a toilet as a protest. Even that incident was unconfirmed, he said.

"People have said, 'My goodness, why does it take so long for someone to come back with and have the actual facts?' " Rumsfeld said. "Well, it takes a long time to be truthful."

The original Newsweek article cited "sources" as saying that interrogators, "in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Quran down a toilet."

But Newsweek said only a single source was used and that after the original article was published, the government source said he wasn't sure what he'd read about the desecration.

Whitaker told PBS the source was known to be credible and "in a position to know the things he was telling us."

Newsweek's article was not the first time allegations of Quran desecration at Guantanamo have surfaced, but others have come directly from detainees.

Diplomatic efforts

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher chided the magazine before Monday's retraction, saying "one would expect more than the kind of correction we've seen so far."

U.S. diplomats overseas were working the phones to try to spread the word about Newsweek's latest story, he said.

"We'll deal with it the same way we have been dealing with it -- by being transparent, up front and open about our policies and what our soldiers do," Boucher said.

State Department officials said it would be hard to undo the damage because of the already existing sense of anger and mistrust of the United States.

"People will believe the worst, even if it is wrong," one official said.

Afghan government spokesman Jawed Ludin said his government expresses "in the strongest terms our disapproval of Newsweek's approach to reporting which allowed them to run this story without proper examination beforehand."

Reviewing tactics

The U.S. military said Monday it must reach out to angry Afghans to ease tensions.

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

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. troops 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," Cheek said. "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 Dana Bash, Ed Henry and Barbara Starr and journalist Nick Meo contributed to this report.

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