WASHINGTON - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday condemned as "completely inhumane" a video that purports to depict four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. Pentagon officials said commanders believe they have identified the men's unit and that it is back in the United States.
The Marine Corps said Wednesday it was investigating the YouTube video but had not yet verified its origin or authenticity. The case has been referred to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Navy's worldwide law enforcement organization.
In a statement, Karzai called on the U.S. military to punish the Marines. The Afghan Ministry of Defense also condemned the actions in the video, which it described as "shocking."
The NATO-led security force in Afghanistan released a statement Thursday saying, "This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces."
The actions "appear to have been conducted by a small group of U.S. individuals, who apparently are no longer serving in Afghanistan," the International Security Assistance Force said. The statement did not identify the personnel or explain why the ISAF thought they had left the country.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement the actions depicted in the video were "utterly deplorable."
"This conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military and does not reflect the standards or values our armed forces are sworn to uphold. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent," he said.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Marine Corps one of America's strongest institutions and said its image has apparently been tarnished by "a handful of obviously undisciplined people."
"There should be an investigation and these young people should be punished," McCain said Thursday on "CBS This Morning."
Pentagon officials said the criminal investigation would likely look into whether the Marines violated laws of war, which include prohibitions against photographing bodies and detainees and a range of other rules.
The video, posted on the Internet, shows the Marines in combat gear, standing in a semi-circle over three bodies. It's not clear whether the dead were Taliban or civilians or someone else. The title on the posting said they were Taliban insurgents but it was unclear whether that title was added by the person who took the video or the person who posted it, Marine Corps officials in Washington said.
Eight years ago in Iraq, U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison posed next to detainees in degrading positions. After the photos surfaced, some American troops were dishonorably discharged; others were sentenced to military prison.
The video also comes to light as Afghanistan's leaders ratchet up pressure on the U.S. to hand over control of security and law enforcement duties more quickly.
On Saturday,that U.S. military personnel had abused prisoners at the main U.S.-run detention facility in the war-torn country, increasing their calls for the prison outside the Bagram Air Base to be turned over completely to domestic forces.
While the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has left almost 2,000 Americans troops dead, many thousands more Afghan civilians have been killed in the violence during the last 10 years, and that bloodshed has led many Afghans to deeply resent the American presence.
"We don't want them anymore on our soil, we don't like foreign soldiers to be on our soil," angry Kabul resident Feda Mohammed told the Reuters news agency. "They have to leave."
Another big question the scandal will raise in coming days is what effect it may have on the beginning of reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the U.S. government, which seem to be looming ever larger after the recent announcement of a new Taliban liaison office in Qatar.
While both the Taliban and the U.S. government insist no direct peace talks have yet taken place, the two sides are, by all accounts, moving in that direction.
Speaking to CBS News' Ahmad Mukhtar on the phone Thursday, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihulla Mujahid strongly condemned the video. He reiterated that talks with the Americans have not begun, but he said if they do, the video of the alleged desecration "will not harm" the dialogue.
On Wednesday, the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, protested the video in a letter faxed to Panetta.
"We condemn this apparent desecration of the dead as a violation of our nation's military regulations and of international laws of war prohibiting such disgusting and immoral actions," the group wrote.
"If verified as authentic, the video shows behavior that is totally unbecoming of American military personnel and that could ultimately endanger other soldiers and civilians," the letter said.
Marine Corps headquarters at the Pentagon said: "The actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps. This matter will be fully investigated."
A Marine Corps spokesman, Lt. Col. Stewart Upton, added, "Allegations of Marines not doing the right thing in regard to dead Taliban insurgents are very serious and, if proven, represent a failure to adhere to the high standards expected of American military personnel."
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said the video is deeply troubling.
"Whoever it is, and whatever the circumstances which we know is under investigation it is egregious behavior," Kirby said.
It is unclear who shot the video and who posted it online.