Graphic photos published in an American newspaper show US soldiers posing with the mangled bodies of suspected Afghan suicide bombers.
Senior US officials and NATO's top commander in the country, US General John Allen, moved quickly to condemn the pictures even before they were published on Wednesday by the Los Angeles Times, which received the photos from another soldier.
"The actions of the individuals photographed do not represent the policies of International Security Assistance Force or the US Army," Allen said in a statement, adding that an investigation into the incident was under way.
The appearance on the Los Angeles Times website of some of the 18 pictures, taken in 2010, comes at a sensitive time in US-Afghan relations, following release of a video in January that showed four US Marines urinating on Afghan insurgent corpses.
The burning of copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, at a major NATO airbase also triggered a week of riots that left 30 dead and led to the deaths of six Americans.
And, in March, a US army sergeant went on a night shooting rampage in two southern Afghan villages, killing 17 civilians and prompting Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, to demand foreign soldiers confine themselves to major bases.
Such incidents have complicated US efforts to negotiate a strategic partnership agreement to define its presence once most foreign combat troops pull out by the end of 2014.
Taliban fighters launched suicide attacks in Kabul and three other provinces at the weekend, claiming the assault was launched in retaliation for all three incidents.
In one of the pictures, a paratrooper posed next to an unofficial patch placed beside a body that read "Zombie Hunter", while in another soldiers posed with Afghan police holding the severed legs of a bomber.
Two soldiers in another frame held a dead fighter's hand with the middle finger raised.
The Los Angeles Times said the 82nd Airborne Division soldiers had been at a police station in Afghanistan's Zabol province in February 2010, and revisited several months later. The pictures were taken on both occasions.
The Los Angeles Times defended the distribution of the photos in an article accompanying the photos.
"After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan," Davan Maharaj, the newspaper's editor, said.
Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, said in a statement that publication of the pictures could prompt further attacks against security forces.
"The danger is that this material could be used by the enemy to incite violence against US and Afghan service members in Afghanistan," Panetta was quoted as saying.
"US forces in the country are taking security measures to guard against it."
Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Afghanistan, also condemned the photographs, calling the actions of the soldiers "morally repugnant" and saying they "dishonour the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and civilians who have served with distinction in Afghanistan".
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|William A. Cook|