WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama has defended his apology for the burning of the Noble Qur'an at a US airbase in Afghanistan, as the United Nations called for the punishment of those behind the desecration of the Muslim holy book.
"It calmed things down, Obama told ABC News in an interview on Wednesday, February 29.
We're not out of the woods yet, he added, referring to Afghanistan.
More than 30 people were killed in a week of protests in Afghanistan over the burning of the Qur'an at the Bagram airbase in Kabul.
Seeking to calm the Afghan anger, Obama sent a letter of apology to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, describing the incident as a mistake.
But the apology has brought the American leader under fierce criticism from Republicans.
Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich described the apology as an outrage for the US president to apologize.
Rick Santorum, who also seeks the Republican Party nomination to run against Obama in the November election, also criticized the apology, saying there was nothing deliberately done wrong here.
But Obama rejected the criticism, saying the apology has helped calm the situation in Afghanistan.
"I think the reason that it was important ... is to save lives, and to make sure our troops who are there right now are not placed in further danger," he said.
"My criteria in any decision I make, getting recommendations from the folks who are actually on the ground, is what is going to be best to protect our folks and make sure they can accomplish their mission."
UN Wants Punishment
Despite the apology, the United Nations called for the punishment of those behind in the Qur'an burning.
After the first step of a profound apology, there must be a second step ... of disciplinary action," Jan Kubis, special representative for the UN secretary-general in Afghanistan, told a news conference cited by Reuters.
"Only after this, after such a disciplinary action, can the international forces say 'yes, we're sincere in our apology'.
The call comes after the Afghan President the Qur'an burners -- whom he said were American soldiers -- be put on public trial and punished.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says any disciplinary action "deemed necessary" would be taken by US authorities after a thorough review of the facts in an investigation.
Results from separate investigations by NATO and Afghan authorities into the Qur'an burnings last month are expected soon.
New protests could erupt if the investigation teams are seen as too soft on the Qur'an burners.
"We were very hurt that the international military allowed the desecration of the Qur'an. We rejected and condemned this act, it doesn't matter that it was a mistake," said the UN official.
Muslims consider the Qur'an the literal word of God and treat each book with deep reverence. Desecration is considered one of the worst forms of blasphemy.
Similar incidents in the past have caused deep divisions and resentment among Afghans towards the US-led foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Seven foreign UN workers were killed during protests that raged across Afghanistan for three days in April 2011 after a US pastor burned the Qur'an in Florida."We were not the ones who desecrated the holy Qur'an," Kubis said. "We deeply, deeply, profoundly respect Islam."