Afghan Protests Spread

By N.C. Aizenman and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 14, 2005

QALAT, Afghanistan, May 13 -- Angry mobs ransacked government offices and relief agencies and clashed with police in several provinces Friday in a fourth day of growing anti-American demonstrations. The violence left at least eight people dead and raised the death toll since Wednesday to about 15, officials said.

The demonstrations represent the most widespread expression of anti-American sentiment since U.S.-led troops ousted the Islamic Taliban militia in late 2001. They have caused growing worry for the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, who is due to visit Washington later this month.

The protests erupted Wednesday in the eastern city of Jalalabad and have now spread to the capital, Kabul, and four other areas. Demonstrations also took place in other Muslim countries Friday, although no serious violence was reported. Protesters gathered in several cities in Pakistan, as well as in Indonesia and the Palestinian territories.

The protests were sparked by a May 9 report in Newsweek magazine that interrogators at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had placed copies of the Koran in bathrooms and flushed one text down a toilet.

Many of the detainees at Guantanamo are Afghans, and stories of American interrogators desecrating the Koran to extract confessions have circulated since at least early 2003, when some released prisoners returned to Afghanistan. But the Newsweek report has gained currency here since being fueled by broadcasts on Taliban radio and stoked by clerics who used Friday prayer sessions to call the demonstrations justified.

Some U.S. officials and analysts said the report, which appeared as a small item in Newsweek, was being manipulated as a way to inflame passions and undercut Karzai's authority ahead of his U.S. trip.

At the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the rioting in Afghanistan could be related to domestic Afghan politics. A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the demonstrations in Pakistan were being manipulated by al Qaeda supporters in retaliation for the arrest last week of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, identified as a senior al Qaeda leader, along with 10 other suspected terrorists.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that U.S. officials "share and understand" Muslim concerns. "Disrespect for the holy Koran is something that the United States will never tolerate," he told reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that the military was investigating the allegations that American interrogators desecrated the Koran. She said that if they "are proven true, we will take appropriate action."

In Afghanistan, security experts warned that the violence could severely hamper international efforts to rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war. Offices of relief agencies in several cities have been attacked and evacuated this week.

"National and international security forces do not seem to be able to contain this," said Nick Downie, an official of the Afghanistan Non-Governmental Organization Security Office, speaking from Kabul. He said aid workers were "feeling a risk to their life" and have now pulled out of some high-risk areas.

Although Islamic clerics urged protesters to refrain from violence in their Friday sermons, protests broke out in scattered regions. In northeastern Badakhshan province, officials said hundreds of men attempted to pillage and torch three international relief agencies after Friday prayers.

The provincial governor, Abdul Majid, said by telephone that police shot at the protesters, killing three and injuring 13. A staff member at one aid group, Afghan Aid, said equipment was smashed but workers fled to safety.

In the city of Ghazni, 75 miles south of Kabul, shooting broke out after protesters stoned a police station and the governor's residence, crying, "Death to America," according to the Associated Press. Two civilians and a police officer were fatally shot and 21 people were wounded, the news agency reported.

One protester was killed in a clash with police and government soldiers in the town of Gardez, also south of the capital, and another man was killed in Qala-e Nau, the capital of far northwestern Badghis province, when police opened fire on a demonstration.

Lt. Cindy Moore, a spokeswoman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, said in Kabul that U.S. officials were still trying to determine whether the demonstrations were spontaneous or coordinated. Afghan officials asserted that deeper forces were at work.

"This is organized by particular groups who are the enemies of Afghanistan," Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told the Associated Press. "They are trying to show that the situation, that security, is not good."

American officials have hastened to declare the U.S. government's respect for Islam and the rights of Muslims to worship, even within U.S. military prisons.

U.S. officials offered various interpretations of the protests. The State Department official said anti-American groups in Pakistan were exploiting the Newsweek report to "swat back" at Washington and Islamabad, but that the incident had "lit a flame under what a lot of Muslims believe -- that Americans do not respect Islam."

Myers said U.S. military officials in Afghanistan believed the protests might be linked to political reconciliation issues. Karzai has been attempting to woo some ex-Taliban leaders back to public life, but Afghan and U.S. forces have faced a new series of attacks by Taliban fighters.

The governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia appealed for calm, but Muslim governments also expressed concern about the Koran desecration reports. A Saudi official called for measures to prevent a recurrence and to "protect the sentiments of Muslims all over the world."

The protests have come at a delicate time for U.S. relations with the Islamic world, where the Bush administration is trying to promote democracy and combat terrorism. Muslim allies such as the Afghan and Pakistani governments must balance support for U.S. goals and responsiveness to domestic criticism that they are slavish to American demands.

Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, said a "serious investigation" of the Guantanamo allegations was needed because the incident "strengthens the voice" of extremists who say the United States is "not serious in promoting freedom and democracy in the Muslim world."

Wright reported from Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company