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Video not likely to derail Afghan talks

KABUL -- A 39-second video purporting to show Marines urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan is straining U.S.-Afghan relations but is not expected to undo months of work aimed at brokering peace with the Taliban.

The images have not sparked widespread anti-U.S. protests, and Afghan officials say one battlefield abuse cannot derail the peace process, which has gained momentum in recent months with news that the Taliban will open a political office in Qatar.

U.S. military officials have sternly condemned the alleged acts of four Marines who appear to be desecrating the bodies of three men lying in the dirt.

The video, which appeared on YouTube on Wednesday, emerged at a delicate time in relations among the United States, Afghanistan's elected government and the Taliban insurgency.

The United States is trying to foster peace talks between President Hamid Karzai's government and the Taliban. Recent statements by senior U.S. and Taliban officials suggest the possibility of some trust-building measures soon, such as the opening of the Taliban office and the transfer of some Taliban detainees out of the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Relations with Karzai have been shaky, and the two nations have yet to sign a long-term partnership agreement that will govern the presence of U.S. troops in the country after 2014, when most foreign troops will have gone home or moved into support roles.

Initially there were concerns that outrage over the video would spiral into a scandal like the one in 2004 over photos showing U.S. military police abusing prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has promised an exhaustive investigation, expressed concern that the fragile peace effort could be jeopardized by the images that he described as "utterly deplorable."

And the incident makes it harder for U.S.-led coalition troops to gain the trust of Afghan villagers as they try to secure gains on the battlefield, while it gives Karzai more leeway to balk at U.S. demands on critical war issues, including negotiations on the partnership agreement.

But Afghan officials and others said the quick responses by all sides had helped contain the damage. "As all three sides -- the U.S., the Afghan government and the Taliban -- have all condemned this act, I'm hopeful that this will not have any effect on the peace process," Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a member of the peace council and the Taliban's former envoy to the United Nations, said yesterday.

"Reconciliation is a big change for the people of Afghanistan and it won't be affected by the actions of individuals like those in the video," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said Friday. "We are focused on the bigger picture and for that, we have to avoid small things."

"The die has already been cast, to a degree, in Afghanistan," said Andrew Exum, who was a civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. "The plan for transition and the negotiations are going forward, and it is hard to imagine this video changing any of that."

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