WASHINGTON — White House hopeful Rick Santorum accused Afghans on Sunday of "overreacting" over Koran burning as he stepped up his criticism of President Barack Obama for apologizing over the incident.
The Republican presidential candidate said there was "no deliberate act... of disrespect" when US authorities at Bagram airbase north of Kabul apparently disposed of the Islamic holy books in a fire.
The United States rushed to condemn the burnings, and Obama apologized to the Afghan people for what he said was a mistake.
President Hamid Karzai went on television Sunday to appeal for calm, after an explosion of outrage over the burning resulted in dozens of deaths, including two US military advisers killed in Afghanistan's interior ministry.
Obama's apology in itself had "made it sound like there was something that you should apologize for, and there was no act that needed an apology," Santorum told NBC's "Meet the Press" talkshow.
"I think the response needs to be apologized for, by Karzai and the Afghan people, for attacking and killing our men and women in uniform, and overreacting to this inadvertent mistake. That is the real crime, not what our soldiers did."
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak telephoned Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Saturday and apologized for the killing of the Americans, the Pentagon said.
Santorum's main Republican rival, Mitt Romney told Fox News Sunday that "with regards to the (Obama) apology, I think for a lot of people, it sticks in their throat.
"The idea that we are there, having lost thousands of individuals through casualty and death -- we've made an enormous contribution to help the people there achieve freedom, and for us to be apologizing at a time like this is something which is very difficult for the American people to countenance."
Santorum said he does "commend the president for his commitment of troops" in the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, while Romney acknowledged the need for Americans to continue helping in the transition from US to Afghan control of security.
"We don't want to see Afghanistan once again return to a Taliban-dominated nation with Al-Qaeda and other training camps," he said.
A third Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, made more strident denunciations of Obama's apology, labeling him an appeaser and saying he was "deeply offended" that Obama didn't hold Karzai responsible for the killings.
"There doesn't seem to be any request for an apology from Karzai," Gingrich told Fox News on Saturday.
"And I frankly just think this one-sided process of apologizing for America has gone too far," he said. "Churches get burned in Nigeria, there are no apologies. Churches get burned in Egypt, there are no apologies."
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