By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 18, 2006
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 17 -- Protests sparked by newspaper cartoons of the prophet Muhammad continued across the country Friday, as a cleric announced a $1 million bounty for the killing of any of the Danish cartoonists responsible for the caricatures and Denmark temporarily closed its embassy.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in the capital, Islamabad, after midday prayers. Rallying at a downtown intersection, some chanted, "Bush is a dog!" and others carried banners reading, "Death sentence for the cartoonists." Police in riot gear watched from the sidelines. Similar demonstrations were reported in other cities across the country.
For the most part, the demonstrations remained peaceful and did not match the scale or intensity of protests earlier in the week that left five people dead and scores of businesses, many of them Western franchises, in ruins.
Political leaders from moderate as well as hard-line religious parties have vowed to continue the demonstrations, which have expanded beyond the cartoon controversy into a broader attack on Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, and his Western backers, especially the United States.
Religious parties have announced plans for a large rally in the capital on Sunday as part of a series of demonstrations intended to peak when President Bush arrives on a visit in early March.
"They are pursuing a larger agenda against this regime under the cover of the cartoons," said Hasan Rizvi, a political analyst and author. "They want a confrontation now."
Musharraf has strongly condemned the cartoons, and the government for several weeks took a tolerant stance toward the protests, which until this week had stopped short of violence. But the eruption of rioting in such major cities as Lahore and Peshawar has posed a tough challenge for the government, which is eager to forestall further unrest even as it expresses sympathy with protesters' outrage.
In the eastern city of Lahore on Friday, thousands of police and paramilitary troops guarded government buildings, shopping centers, restaurants and movie theaters, and Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the leader of the radical group Jamaat ul-Dawa, was placed under house arrest before he could travel to another city to address a rally, the Associated Press reported.
About 125 protesters were detained in the city of Multan, also in Punjab province, when they gathered at a traffic circle for an unauthorized rally.
In the conservative northwestern city of Peshawar, Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi announced after Friday prayers at the historic Mohabat Khan mosque that the mosque and an affiliated religious school would give $25,000 and a car to anyone who killed one of the artists responsible for the cartoons, news agencies reported from the city.
The cleric also said a local jewelers' association had offered a $1 million bounty.
"If the West can place a bounty on Osama bin Laden" and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, "we can also announce a reward for killing the man who has caused this sacrilege of the holy prophet," Qureshi told the Reuters news agency.
The escalating protests and threats of violence have alarmed the Danish government, which on Friday announced it was temporarily closing its embassy here "because of the general security situation" and urged Danes in Pakistan to leave immediately. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said it was recalling its ambassador from Copenhagen for consultations.
The protest in Islamabad on Friday was organized by an opposition faction of the moderate Pakistan Muslim League, one of the country's largest political parties. After midday prayers, hundreds of bearded men spilled out of a mosque and into an intersection, where speakers atop a platform truck denounced the Danish cartoons while also leveling broader criticisms against Musharraf and his alliance with the West.
"The United States invaded Afghanistan five years ago and killed so many innocent Muslims," said Raja Zafar ul-Haq, a senior leader of the party. "None of the Muslim leaders made an effective plea against this invasion" or that of Iraq, he said.
"The West thought that since the Muslims had kept quiet on Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo, they would not speak out about the blasphemous cartoons as well," Zafar ul-Haq continued. "But we will die for protection of the holy prophet's honor."
Some members of the crowd were more blunt, chanting, "The friends of America are the traitors of Pakistan."
A party official on the truck pleaded for calm, telling the protesters: "Islamabad is our city. Let's not damage it."
On Friday, at least, that message was heeded.