By Hamid Shalizi
BAGRAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - In a small room near NATO's sprawling Bagram Airbase, Sayed Jamil fumes as he remembers how three U.S. soldiers ignored the pleas of fellow laborers not to burn dozens of copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
Jamil, 22, was with other workers at a disposal centre inside the base when a woman and two men, wearing U.S. military uniforms, arrived on Monday in a truck piled with religious material and books.
While the vehicle was stopped at the centre gate, another laborer named Wali glanced in the back and saw the Korans, which the Americans dumped into an oven.
The burning of the holy books lasted just five minutes, but that short action could complicate U.S.-led efforts to pacify Afghanistan before NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
"I was ready to shed my blood and kill them or be killed," Jamil told Reuters, sitting in a heavy winter jacket, a checked scarf tied tight around his neck.
The laborers, after learning from Wali what was in the truck, rushed to the oven to stop what NATO has called a tragic blunder. Their account could not be independently verified, but was backed by local Afghan police and officials.
"We told the driver they were all religious materials and asked why they were burning them. The Americans said they were materials from prisons and they had orders to dispose of them," Jamil said.
The men plunged their hands into the oven to try to save the texts, some burning their fingers and hands as they pulled eight Koran copies from the fire, he said.
"The boys gathered and started shouting 'Allah u Akbar' (God is Greatest), clutching fragments of burning text to their chests," he said. "The truck fled the site with almost half the books still inside."
Thousands of Afghans have staged violent protests for three days over an incident that highlights the deep cultural divide that still exists ten years after U.S. troops invaded to oust the Taliban.
Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has launched an investigation into the incident, for which U.S. President Barack Obama and NATO commanders have offered apologies, blaming a lack of religious and cultural understanding.
NATO's top commander in the country, U.S. Marine General John Allen, ordered his troops to complete additional training by March 3 on the identification, significance and proper handling of religious materials.
Jamil said U.S. soldiers were at first willing to allow them to take away the charred remains of the Korans, explaining how some parts made their way outside the base, but said arriving Afghan interpreters immediately realized the material could incite rage on the streets.
"The Americans first told us through the translators 'we don't want your Korans, take them away'. The Afghan "dog washers" intervened and told the Americans, 'If you let them take these books out, there will be a disaster'," he said.
Eventually freed with the material, the men ran out into the
streets, waking people up and shouting about the transgression, which added fresh fuel to widespread anger that already exists over civilian deaths and intrusive NATO night raids.
Now sitting under a picture of one of Afghanistan's most famous heroes, the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Masood, Jamil said he and the other laborers were afraid of retaliation by NATO or Afghan security forces.
"We have done a heroic job of saving and serving our religion. But we are also afraid of being taken and disappearing," he said. Others nearby offered support, including Afghan local officials and police, and a mullah who said they were heroes "whose faces should be famous."
"No one can touch you guys. All the people of Afghanistan stand by you. Don't be afraid," one government official said. Their material was handed to Afghan government officials for evidence, while their actions were praised by Karzai.
CULTURAL, RELIGIOUS SENSITIVITIES
German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, the spokesman for coalition forces, said on Wednesday that after 10 years of NATO experience in Afghanistan, soldiers should have known to check with cultural advisers attached to their units on how to properly dispose of religious material.
All members of 50-nation coalition provided cultural and religious sensitivity training to troops before and after they deployed to the country, Jacobson said.
He declined to confirm comments to Reuters by a senior U.S. official that the material had been removed from a library at Parwan detention center at the base because of concerns that some was extremist in nature and being used to pass messages among prisoners.
Jamil said he believed the actions of the soldiers had been "intentional and stupid," while the Taliban urged Afghans to kill and beat Western soldiers.
Bagram Police Chief Abdul Hafiz Mutawakkil said the Americans in the country had little awareness of Afghanistan's complex tribal and religious currents.
"Otherwise no one would do such stupidity," he said, watching over elite Afghan police securing deserted shops and streets where thousands rioted on Tuesday, as NATO helicopters fired flares in a bid to halt the quickly-spreading violence.
"Those who are aware and committed to religious values never commit such actions, but those not aware of other religions ... do such things out of ignorance," Mutawakkil said.
Jawad, one of the laborers, said he no longer wanted to work at the base, despite relatively good wages of $650 a month in a country where more than a third live under the poverty line.
"The Americans always do such blasphemy to test how strong our Muslim faith is. It is best for us that the government provide us with another job," Jawad said.
(Writing by Rob Taylor, editing by Michael Georgy)