Opportunists Make Use of Cartoon Protests

A burned police car was left abandoned in the Afghan town of Qalat, where at least three protesters were killed and more than a dozen people injured in a shootout.
A burned police car was left abandoned in the Afghan town of Qalat, where at least three protesters were killed and more than a dozen people injured in a shootout. (Reuters)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 9, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, Feb. 8 -- Like tens of thousands of protesters this week, the crowd that gathered Wednesday in the southern Afghan town of Qalat came to speak out against cartoons in European newspapers mocking the prophet Muhammad.

But the protest soon took a much different direction. Afghan demonstrators began chanting against the hiring of Pakistanis to do reconstruction work. Pakistanis in the crowd began chanting against the United States and tried to force their way into the local U.S. military base. When the crowd encountered Afghan security forces, a suspected Taliban member fired a weapon. Afghan police returned fire. By the time the smoke cleared, at least three protesters were dead and more than a dozen people were injured.

"They forgot all about the cartoons," said Gulab Shah Alikheil, the regional governor's spokesman.

Furor over the caricatures of Islam's most revered figure may have triggered the wave of recent demonstrations among Muslims worldwide. But as the protests escalate, they are morphing into an opportunity for individuals, groups and governments to push agendas that often have little or nothing to do with defending Islam. Rallies ostensibly held for religious reasons have become chances to vent economic frustrations, settle local scores or gain political leverage.

"We have condemned the cartoons and said those responsible should be brought to justice," said Mulwi Sayed Imam Mutawali, deputy head of a religious council in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. "But there are some enemies of Afghanistan that want to take advantage of this issue. They just want to advance their own aims."

Mutawali said his council initially supported the protests but has decided to demand they stop because they have been hijacked by people with ulterior motives. At least 10 people have been killed in Afghan protests over the past three days.

"There's a sincere feeling of being wounded" by the cartoons, said Paul Fishstein, director of the nonprofit Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. "But there's also the chance for certain forces to make mischief, to take advantage of a situation where people are upset."

The list of suspected ringleaders using the controversy to their own benefit here is a long one, from al Qaeda and the Taliban to local militia commanders and former governors. All are believed to have something to gain by steering otherwise peaceful protests into melees.

"Ordinary Afghan citizens who are protesting do not walk around with hand grenades in their pockets," said a U.S. military spokesman, Col. James Yonts, referring to a protest Tuesday in which demonstrators lobbed grenades into a NATO base. "That leads us to believe there is something else behind this."

Afghanistan is not the only place where motives are in question.

The autocratic Syrian government was widely believed to be behind protests Saturday that resulted in the burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus. In Lebanon, where the Danish Embassy burned a day later and Christian landmarks were targeted in violence, local news organizations reported that Syrian agents had protesters bused in to help stir up trouble.

Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar, said interest groups in Lebanon also had incentive to see the cartoon protests spiral out of control.

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