By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006
The Bush administration yesterday condemned the violent response to European cartoons mocking Islam and accused Iran and Syria of exploiting the international controversy to incite unrest and protests in the Middle East.
"I have no doubt that Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and have used this for their own purposes," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters yesterday. "The world ought to call them on it."
A few hours earlier, at a White House ceremony with Jordan's King Abdullah, President Bush rejected the violence but not the cartoons that incited bloody protests from Afghanistan to Denmark, where the drawings first appeared. "We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press," Bush said.
Bush and Rice, making their first public remarks on the growing worldwide controversy, highlighted a shift in White House strategy to focusing on the killings and destruction during Muslim protests in several nations -- in contrast to earlier statements that included criticism of the provocative drawings. Administration officials said Bush does not want a debate over free speech to diminish or deflect attention from the U.S. condemnation of the violence.
The protests claimed at least three more lives in Afghanistan yesterday, where demonstrators targeted a U.S. military base in the southern city of Qalat. Police fired into the crowd of protesters, injuring more than a dozen. As world leaders pleaded for an end to the violence, a French newspaper reprinted the cartoons, provoking another round of recriminations and a sharp rebuke from French President Jacques Chirac. "Anything liable to offend the beliefs of others, particularly religious beliefs, must be avoided," Chirac said.
The Bush strategy puts him at odds with some Democrats and key U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Abdullah, who want a clear condemnation of the drawings. "With all respect to press freedoms, obviously anything that vilifies the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, or attacks Muslim sensibilities, I believe, needs to be condemned," Abdullah said.
Some Democrats said Bush is missing an opportunity to highlight U.S. respect for Muslims and Islam in not explicitly condemning the publication of the cartoons, especially one portraying Muhammad with a bomb atop his turban. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush has invested a lot of money and staff resources in trying to improve the U.S. image in Muslim nations.
"These and other inflammatory images deserve our scorn, just as the violence against embassies and military installations are an unacceptable and intolerable form of protest," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
"We have done precious little to effectively communicate to the hearts and minds and win that long-term war," said former Democratic congressman Timothy J. Roemer (Ind.), a member of the Sept. 11 commission. "This seems to be an opportunity to condemn the cartoons and communicate directly with the Muslim people on a host of issues."
But Democrats appear divided over the issue. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) agrees with Bush's position and fears censoring the press, according to her spokesman, Brendan Daly.
Bush has made a calculated decision to focus on the violence in recent days, according to White House aides. The administration's initial reaction, delivered last Friday by the State Department, was to sharply criticize the drawings. "Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said at the time. Cooper was repeating talking points provided by higher-level officials when the controversy erupted. "We hoped it would be a calming influence," a State Department official said.
Some U.S. officials considered the response too harsh, however, and not sufficiently supportive of free speech.
Since then, Bush, Vice President Cheney and White House spokesman Scott McClellan have not specifically criticized the cartoons. "I call upon the governments around the world to stop the violence, to be respectful, to protect property, protect the lives of innocent diplomats who are serving their countries overseas," Bush said yesterday.
The State Department official said the reason for the disjointed response is that "there is not entire uniformity in the U.S. government about how we feel about these things."
The new, carefully calibrated statements by Bush and others are aimed at offering a cautionary note about the responsibilities of the news media without directly condemning the cartoons, and at trying to move the debate beyond the drawings.
In her comments to reporters, Rice accused Iran and Syria of using the cartoon controversy to stir violence and protests. In Iran, which is locked in a bitter dispute with the United States, Europe and others over its nuclear ambitions, the country's largest newspaper announced Tuesday an international competition for Holocaust cartoons.
Last weekend, protesters set fire to Danish embassies in Beirut and the Syrian capital of Damascus.
The cartoons were published in several European countries, including Denmark, Austria, France, Germany and Italy.
Many U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post, have decided not to print them. In New York yesterday, four editors at the alternative Observer newspaper quit after managers refused to publish the cartoons.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.