By Matt Spetalnick and Laura MacInnis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama apologized on Thursday for the burning of copies of the Koran on a U.S. base in Afghanistan as the White House sought to quell spiraling furor among Afghans while also staving off Republican criticism at home.
In a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama apologized over the incident in which Afghan workers found charred copies of the Muslim holy book on a military base near Kabul, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Carney said the incident, which has sparked angry protests against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and underscored the divide between many Afghans and the foreign forces who have been battling the Taliban for a decade, was not intentional.
While Carney said the apology was "wholly appropriate given the sensitivities" about treatment of the Koran, he said Obama's primary concern was "the safety of American men and women in Afghanistan, of our military and civilian personnel there."
The burnings could make it even more difficult for U.S.-led NATO forces to win the hearts and minds of Afghans and bring the Taliban and Afghan government to the negotiating table ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Only last month, U.S. officials rushed to respond to fallout from a video showing U.S. forces urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the NATO-led force said on Wednesday troops involved in the Koran-burning incident should have known to check with cultural advisers to determine how to dispose of religious material properly.
Some of the material had been removed from a military detention center, a U.S. official said, because of concerns that some of it was extremist in nature and being used to pass messages among prisoners.
Afghan anger has mounted this week. Muslims consider the Koran the literal word of God and treat each copy with deep reverence.
COMPLICATES PEACE PROCESS
The Taliban has urged Afghans to target foreign military bases and kill Westerners in retaliation for the Koran burning at Bagram airfield near Kabul.
On Thursday, a man in an Afghan army uniform killed two American troops in the east, but it was unclear if the shooting was connected to the protests.
Tommy Vietor, another White House spokesman, said U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker had delivered the letter from Obama, which was a follow-up to a phone call he had with Karzai earlier in the week to discuss the future of U.S.-Afghan ties.
"In the letter ... the president also expressed our regret and apologies over the incident in which religious materials were unintentionally mishandled at Bagram Airbase," Vietor said.
While the Obama administration has ordered an investigation, Afghanistan is demanding NATO put the troops who burned the Koran on public trial.
Such demands could complicate U.S. diplomats' efforts to nudge a nascent peace process ahead as they try to broker political talks between the Taliban and Afghan government.
As the November U.S. presidential elections approach, in which Obama will seek a second term, Carney also attempted to head off criticism from Republicans, who have repeatedly accused Obama of apologizing unnecessarily for U.S. actions abroad.
He said those accusations were "wholly false, fallacious and ridiculous," and pointed out that the administration of Obama's Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, had apologized when a U.S. soldier shot a Koran in Iraq.
Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential candidate and former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said Obama had failed to hold Afghanistan and other allies responsible for violence within their own countries.
"It is an outrage that President Obama is the one apologizing to Afghan President Karzai on the same day two American troops were murdered and four others injured by an Afghan soldier. It is Hamid Karzai who owes the American people an apology, not the other way around," he said in a statement.