Danish Premier Faults Iran, Syria

Demonstrators in Cape Town, South Africa, tear up a Danish flag during a protest against cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, first published in a Danish newspaper.
Demonstrators in Cape Town, South Africa, tear up a Danish flag during a protest against cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, first published in a Danish newspaper. (By Mike Hutchings -- Reuters)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 10, 2006

COPENHAGEN, Feb. 9 -- Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark said Thursday that the governments of Iran and Syria had intentionally inflamed Muslim protests against a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad to distract attention from their own diplomatic crises.

"Syria and Iran have taken advantage of the situation because both countries are under international pressure," Rasmussen said in an interview that echoed statements Wednesday by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rasmussen also said he would "not exclude the possibility" that Syria had also been involved in violent protests in Beirut, the Lebanese capital.

"I think they have taken this opportunity to use this case and a small country like Denmark as a distraction," Rasmussen said. He alleged that Iran was trying to divert attention from international pressure over its nuclear program and Syria from allegations that it was behind the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

"It is obvious that these events have now gone beyond the cartoons," he said, responding to a question about Rice's statements. "We are now facing an international crisis which has its roots in tensions in the Muslim world."

Rasmussen said he held "the two governments responsible" for mobs that attacked and burned Danish embassies in Tehran and Damascus. He said Denmark had lodged formal protests with the two governments and was considering further "diplomatic steps," which he declined to specify.

Rasmussen, a right-of-center former economic affairs minister who was elected in November 2001, said he has watched the events of the past week in "disbelief and sadness." Protesters in countries in the Middle East and Asia have burned Danish flags, attacked Danish embassies and called for Danes to be beheaded and massacred for cartoons seen in the Muslim world as a grave insult to the most revered figure in Islam.

"We are seeing ourselves portrayed as an intolerant nation, as a nation hostile to Islam," Rasmussen said in his spacious corner office at the parliamentary palace. "And it's a false picture. I think it's fair to say that Denmark is one of the most open and tolerant countries in the world. We have a real freedom of religion and we do respect all religions."

Rasmussen, who received a phone call of support from President Bush on Tuesday, said he was pleased with Bush's recent statements condemning violence against Danish diplomatic missions.

"We consider ourselves a faithful and loyal ally of the United States and we appreciate very much to see this reciprocated in the support from the United States," Rasmussen said.

The Bush administration's statements on the situation have shifted. Initially, the administration condemned the cartoons as offensive, but now Bush and other officials are stressing their opposition to the widespread violence. Rasmussen said the administration's initial stance on the cartoons "caused some public debate in Denmark, whether it could be considered a support or not. . . . We do realize that this is also a balance for the United States."

Muslims have staged violent demonstrations against Denmark in Iraq and Afghanistan, where several people have died in protests. But Rasmussen said Denmark had no plans to withdraw or reduce its 530 troops in Iraq or 390 troops in Afghanistan because of that violence.

Throughout the crisis, Rasmussen has publicly said he was sorry that the cartoons had offended Muslims. But he has steadfastly refused to apologize for their publication, because, he said in the interview, "neither the government nor the Danish people can be held responsible for what is published in an independent newspaper."

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