KABUL (Reuters) - A senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan apologised on Wednesday for a "highly offensive" leaflet which contained a passage from the Koran used in the Taliban militants' banner superimposed on to the image of a dog.
The Taliban said the leaflet showed American hatred of Islam, adding that it had launched a suicide attack near the entrance to the U.S. Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul, in revenge.
The image, distributed by U.S. forces in Parwan province, north of Kabul, on Tuesday, showed a section of the Taliban's banner superimposed onto the side of a dog - an animal considered unclean by Muslims. The banner contains a passage from the Koran in Arabic.
"The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam," Major General James Linder said in a statement.
"I sincerely apologise. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide," he said, adding that an investigation would be held "to determine the cause of this incident and to hold the responsible party accountable".
Parwan Governor Mohammad Hasem condemned the leaflet as "unforgivable".
"Those who have committed this unforgivable mistake in the publicity, propaganda or media section of the coalition forces will be tried and punished," he said.
The incident highlights one of the challenges facing international forces in Afghanistan, most of which are from non-Muslim cultures, despite the efforts Western forces have generally taken to avoid stoking anti-foreigner sentiment.
The risk of a backlash against international forces has grown more pronounced with a rise in civilian casualties caused by increased U.S. and Afghan government air strikes since the beginning of the year.
The Taliban, fighting to restore strict Islamic rule to Afghanistan and drive out foreign forces, issued a statement saying the leaflet made clear "that this war is a war between Islam and unbelief".
The insurgent movement claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the U.S. base at Bagram Air Field north of Kabul that local officials said wounded four Afghan civilians, although the Taliban itself said 20 Americans were killed.
In 2012, U.S. commanders were forced to apologise after copies of the Koran and other religious texts were mistakenly burned at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. The incident triggered large demonstrations in Kabul and other provinces in which several people were killed.
On another occasion, a film of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters caused widespread offence, prompting an investigation and criminal charges.
So-called information operations conducted by government and coalition forces have long been used to try to persuade local people to turn against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Above the picture of a lion and the dog, the leaflet urged people to report insurgents to the authorities.
"Take back your freedom from the terrorist dogs and cooperate with coalition forces so they can target your enemy and eliminate them," it said.
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Nick Macfie and Andrew Heavens)