KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s top Islamic organization on Wednesday called for an end to violent protests against drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, as police shot dead two protesters to stop an angry crowd from marching on a U.S. military base in the southern part of the country.
Fourteen people were wounded in the clash in Qalat city, including ten protesters and four Afghan security forces who were struck by flying rocks, said Ahmad Khan, a doctor at the city’s main hospital.
The clash came a day after international peacekeepers exchanged fire with protesters in a remote northern Afghan city, leaving three demonstrators dead and prompting NATO to send reinforcements.
As a third day of bloody unrest began across the country, members of Afghanistan’s Ulama Council, the country’s top Islamic clerics’ organization, went on radio and television to appeal for calm.
“Islam says it’s all right to demonstrate but not to resort to violence. This must stop,” senior cleric Mohammed Usman told The Associated Press. “We condemn the cartoons but this does not justify violence. These rioters are defaming the name of Islam.”
Senior Afghan officials said al-Qaida and the Taliban could be exploiting anger over the cartoons to incite violence.
Political repercussions deepen
Demonstrations rumbled on around the Muslim world on Tuesday, and the political repercussions deepened, with Iran suspending all trade and economic ties with Denmark, where the drawings were first published. The Danish prime minister called the protests a global crisis and appealed for calm.
In a new turn, a prominent Iranian newspaper , Hamshahri, invited artists to enter a Holocaust cartoon competition, saying it wanted to see if freedom of expression — the banner under which many Western publications reprinted the prophet drawings — also applied to Holocaust images.
An aid group that provides food to tens of thousands of people in the war-ravaged Chechnya region of Russia suspended its operations after Chechen officials banned all Danish organizations because of the cartoons. The Danish Refugee Council distributes food to some 250,000 people in mostly Muslim Chechnya and the surrounding area.
The drawings — including one depicting the prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb — have touched a raw nerve among Muslims. Islam is interpreted to forbid any illustrations of Muhammad for fear they could lead to idolatry.
Violence has escalated sharply in Afghanistan this week, and nine people have died in demonstrations during the past three days. Protests, sometimes involving armed men, have been directed at foreign and Afghan government targets — fueling suspicions there’s more behind the unrest than religious sensitivities.
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“It’s an incredibly emotive issue. This is something that really upset Afghans,” said Joanna Nathan, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research institute. “But it is also being used to agitate and motivate the crowds by those against the government and foreign forces” in Afghanistan.
Calls for calm
The heads of the U.N., European Union and the world’s largest Islamic group urged the violent protests to stop.
“Aggression against life and property can only damage the image of a peaceful Islam,” said a statement released jointly Tuesday by Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the EU chief Javier Solana.Slideshow: View the cartoons that started it all
Wednesday’s clash began when about 500 demonstrators threw stones at police outside the U.S. military base in Qalat. The city’s police chief, Abdul Bari, said police initially fired in the air, but they then were forced to fire on the crowd.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Mike Cody, said he had no details on the matter.
On Tuesday, protesters armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked the NATO base in the northern city of Maymana, which is manned by peacekeepers from Norway, Finland, Latvia and Sweden, local officials said.
Sayed Aslam Ziaratia, the provincial deputy police chief, said three protesters were shot and killed by Afghan and Norwegian forces and that 22 others were wounded. However, NATO said it only fired live ammunition into the air and rubber bullets. Five Norwegian peacekeepers suffered minor injuries.
Provincial governor Mohammed Latif said he suspected al-Qaida may have had a hand in the unrest. He said two men from eastern Afghanistan were arrested during the protest and were being interrogated.
“The violence today looked like a massive uprising. It was very unusual,” Latif said.
On Monday, about 2,000 protesters tried to storm the main U.S. military base at Bagram, the hub of the operations for some 20,000 American forces in the country. Police shot dead two protesters. A top local official said al-Qaida and Taliban militants incited the crowd.
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told The Associated Press by telephone Tuesday that it was possible militants egged on the demonstrators, but he stressed the government has no evidence.
“Once these crowds get together, they often get out of control, here and in other countries,” he said. “But if this goes on, we’re going to have to take a closer look to see if there is more behind it.”
The unrest in Maymana prompted NATO to send 150 British troops to help secure the base, and two American A-10 attack aircraft were flown to the city. The U.N. evacuated nonessential staff.
Bush confers with Rasmussen
In Washington, President Bush called Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to express “our solidarity and support.” A Danish newspaper first printed the cartoons of Muhammad in September, and they were reprinted this month by other European papers, setting off a new round of protests.
Bush and Fogh Rasmussen agreed that all sides must move forward “through dialogue and tolerance, not violence,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
In Copenhagen, Fogh Rasmussen showed no sign of diverting from his government’s stance that it cannot apologize for the actions of an independent newspaper, as demanded by governments in several Muslim nations.
Fogh Rasmussen called the protests “a growing global crisis.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Tuesday that publication of the caricatures was an Israeli conspiracy motivated by anger over the victory of the militant Hamas group in last month’s Palestinian elections.
“The West condemns any denial of the Jewish Holocaust, but it permits the insult of Islamic sanctities,” Khamenei said.
Tuesday saw the biggest protest yet in Pakistan, where 5,000 people chanted, “Hang the man who insulted the prophet,” and burned effigies of one cartoonist and Denmark’s prime minister. The rally ended peacefully.
Thousands of Egyptians and Jordanians also demonstrated peacefully, calling for a boycott of Danish products and the cutting of ties with Copenhagen.
- Pakistan: Protests in Peshawar and North Waziristan each drew some 5,000 people. There were no reports of violence. In Peshawar, Chief Minister Akram Durrani, the province’s top elected official who led the rally, demanded the cartoonists “be punished like a terrorist.”
- Iran: Dozens of people pelted the Danish Embassy with stones and climbed over walls into the mission's compound and lit a tree on fire in a second successive day of violent protests. It was not clear whether they had entered the embassy building itself. In a related move, the newspaper Hamshahri invited foreign cartoonists to enter its Holocaust cartoon competition, which it said would be launched on Feb. 13. The newspaper is owned by the Tehran Municipality, which is dominated by allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is well known for his opposition to Israel. Last year, Ahmadinejad provoked outcries when he said on separate occasions that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and the Holocaust was a “myth.”
- China: The government criticized newspapers for publishing the cartoons and appealed for calm among outraged Muslims. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said publishing the cartoons “runs counter to the principle that different religions and civilizations should respect each other and live together in peace and harmony.”
- Indonesia: Danish citizens were advised to leave Indonesia, where rowdy protests were held in at least four cities Tuesday. Danish missions, which have been repeatedly targeted by protesters, have been shut because of security concerns, said Niels Erik Anderson, the country’s ambassador to Indonesia.
- Palestinian areas: Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said his government had temporarily closed diplomatic missions in Palestinian territories — where it shares a building with the Danish mission. He warned his citizens to be wary if traveling to the Middle East. Media in both Australia and New Zealand have also published the images.
Apart from fueling protests, the controversy has also had an impact on foreign relations.
On Monday, Iran announced it cut all trade ties with Denmark because of the cartoons. Iran imports some $280 million worth of goods a year from Denmark.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he disapproves of the caricatures, but insisted he cannot apologize on behalf of his country's independent press.
The United States condemned the protests Monday, as administration officials continued to walk a fine line between supporting free speech and calling the cartoons offensive.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that “what we can do is to speak out very clearly in support of freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and urge understanding and tolerance — not violence.”
“We certainly at this time urge governments to take any steps that they might to lower tensions concerning this issue,” McCormack said.
He specifically said Saudi Arabia might be one. “Certainly the leaders of the Saudi government might be individuals who might fulfill that role,” he said. “There are others in the region who also might fulfill that role as well.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.