TV footage recorded Oct. 1 in a violent part of southern Afghanistan showed American soldiers setting fire to the bodies and then boasting about the act on loudspeakers to taunt insurgents suspected to be hiding in a nearby village.
Islam bans cremation, and the video images were compared to photographs of U.S. troops abusing prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Afghanistan's government condemned the desecration. Muslim clerics warned of a violent anti-American backlash, though there have been no protests so far.
American commanders immediately launched an inquiry and vowed that anyone found guilty would be severely punished, fearing the incident could undermine public support for the war against a stubborn insurgency four years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban.
The U.S.-led coalition's operational commander, Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, said two junior officers who ordered the bodies burned would be reprimanded for showing a lack of cultural and religious understanding, but that the men had been unaware at the time of doing anything wrong.
Kamiya also said two noncommissioned officers would be reprimanded for using the burning of the bodies to taunt the rebels. The two men also would face nonjudicial punishments, which could include a loss of pay or demotion in rank.
"Our investigation found there was no intent to desecrate the remains but only to dispose of them for hygienic reasons," Kamiya said. He added that the broadcasts about the burned remains, while "designed to incite fleeing Taliban to fight," violated military policy.
Kandahar Gov. Asadullah Khalid, who attended the military's news conference in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said, "We have confidence in this investigation."
But Islamic clerics criticized the findings of the probe.
"These soldiers should be severely punished," said Khair Mohammed, a senior cleric in Kandahar. "Foreign soldiers in Afghanistan must respect our religion. If they continue to do things like this, every Muslim will be against them."
A purported Taliban commander in Shah Wali Kot district, where the bodies were burned, said he was "outraged the Americans burned the bodies of our dead.
"The Americans always claimed to respect human rights, our culture and religion, but now the whole world knows that these are all lies," he told The Associated Press by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
The footage shows about five soldiers in light-colored military fatigues, which did not have any distinguishing marks, standing near a bonfire in which two bodies were laid side by side.
Kamiya said the temperature at the time was 90 degrees, and the bodies had lain exposed on the ground for 24 hours and were rapidly decomposing.
"This posed an increasing health concern for our soldiers," Kamiya said. "The criminal investigation proved there was no violation of the rules of war."
The Geneva Convention forbids the burning of combatants except for hygienic purposes.
The bodies were found atop a hill after a fire fight, and Kamiya said soldiers, intending to stay on the hill for two or three days for strategic reasons, believed other Taliban had fled into the village below.
The cameraman, freelance journalist Stephen Dupont, said he shot the footage while embedded with the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered his own inquiry into the videotape. That probe has also been completed, but officials say it is not clear when its findings will be released.
Though Afghan media have reported the alleged desecration, the videotape has not been broadcast in the country, which some observers believe is the main reason there have been no demonstrations.
The last violent anti-American protests in Afghanistan were in May over a report by Newsweek — later retracted — that U.S. soldiers at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility abused Islam's holy book, the Quran.