Iraqis Angered After a Marine is Seen Handing Out Pro-Christian Coins in Fallujah
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BAGHDAD -- A U.S. Marine handed out coins promoting Christianity to Muslims in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah outraged Iraqis, officials said Friday.
The U.S. military responded quickly, removing a trooper from duty pending an investigation.
The distribution of the coins was the second perceived insult to Islam by American service members this month.
A U.S. sniper was sent out of the country after using a Koran, Islam's holy book, for target practice.
Photographs of the coins, which were inscribed with phrases in Arabic, were widely distributed via cell phones in Fallujah and were seen by an AP employee.
One side asked: "Where will you spend eternity?"
The other contained a verse from the New Testament: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16."
Such actions by American service members threaten to alienate Sunni Arabs who have become key allies in the fight against insurgents, a movement that started in Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.
Distribution of the coins in Fallujah was particularly sensitive because the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, is known for its large number of mosques. It was the center of the Sunni-led insurgency before a massive U.S. offensive in November 2004.
Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Zubaie, an influential tribal leader in the city, spoke of his outrage over perceived proselytizing by American forces and warned patience was running thin.
"This event did not happen by chance, but it was planned and done intentionally," al-Zubaie said. "The Sunni population cannot accept and endure such a thing. I might not be able to control people's reactions if such incidents keep happening."
Sunni officials and residents said a Marine distributed about 10 coins at a checkpoint controlling access to the city, the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war.
Al-Zubaie said a man brought one of the coins to a mosque on Wednesday to show it to him and other Sunni leaders.
He accused the Marines of trying to do missionary work in Fallujah and said Sunni leaders had met with U.S. military officials and demanded "the harshest punishment" for those responsible to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Mohammed Hassan Abdullah said he witnessed the coins being handed out on Tuesday as he was waiting at the Halabsa checkpoint, although he didn't receive one himself.
The U.S. military -- still smarting from the Koran shooting -- said a Marine was removed from duty Friday "amid concerns from Fallujah's citizens regarding reports of inappropriate conduct."
A statement said the reports about the coin's distribution were being investigated and promised "appropriate action" if the allegations are confirmed.
Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for U.S. forces in western Iraq, said it didn't appear to be a widespread problem, stressing that the military forbids "proselytizing any religion, faith or practices."
"Indications are this was an isolated incident -- an individual Marine acting on his own accord passing out coins," Hughes said in an e-mailed statement.
Col. James L. Welsh, chief of staff for American forces in western Iraq, also said the matter has their "full attention."
Al-Zubaie said U.S. military officials met with tribal leaders on Thursday and expressed "astonishment about (the) behavior of this Marine, saying that they have already settled the matter of the violation of the Koran and suddenly a new problem has emerged."
Dr. Muhsin al-Jumaili, a professor of law and religious studies in Fallujah, said the act was especially provocative in Fallujah and risked alienating residents who recently have joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"As Muslims, we cannot accept this," he said. "The Americans should concentrate on maintaining security and not doing missionary work."
"Such deeds will not make Muslims trust American troops any more and might create a feeling of hatred among Muslims and Christians" at a time when they're finally living in peace, he added.
The revelation that an American sniper had used a Koran for target practice earlier this month prompted similar outrage and drew apologies from President Bush and senior U.S. commanders.
U.S. troops also have struggled to overcome the accusations that they are insensitive to Islamic traditions after several missteps in the early stages of the war in Iraq.