New protests over U.S. burning of Qurans leave nine dead

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 24, 2012 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans took to the streets for a fourth day Friday to protest American mistreatment of the Quran in demonstrations that left at least nine people dead and thousands more expressing frustration that after 10 years of war, U.S. troops still don't understand how to handle a Muslim holy book.

"The foreigners keep testing our faith and our patience by burning the Quran. They want to see if we are good Muslims or not, and whether we show any reaction or not," one protester told McClatchy as he marched near Afghan President Hamid Karzai's palace in Kabul.

For the first time since word surfaced that American soldiers had burned Qurans at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, protests reached nearly all parts of Afghanistan, with demonstrators chanting "Death to America" and "Death to the infidels." In the city of Herat, in western Afghanistan, hundreds attempted to storm the American consulate. Afghan police opened fire, killing three. Two dozen were injured.

Violence also was reported in the northern province of Baghlan, where one civilian was killed and three were wounded outside a coalition provincial reconstruction team base, and in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where one person was killed.

Six people were wounded in Khost province and two protesters and four police officers were injured in clashes in Kabul.

Despite the violence, U.S. officials in Washington said they were cautiously optimistic that the tensions over the Quran burnings would soon ease. But they kept U.S. troops on heightened alert and reduced the number of patrols after the deaths Thursday of two U.S. soldiers who were killed by a demonstrator dressed in an Afghan army uniform.

"The situation is not getting worse," a senior U.S. military official said, declining to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the subject. He acknowledged, however, that "there is a trust deficit" between Afghans and Americans, and "we have to try to take rightful measures."

In Afghanistan, many protesters said they felt called to defend their religion against an American onslaught.

"Burning the Quran is an unforgivable crime and sin, but the presence of infidels in a Muslim country is even a bigger crime," Mawlawi Enayatullah Baleegh, the imam at Pul-e-Kheshti mosque, one of the biggest in Kabul, told worshippers during his sermon.

"When the Quran is being shredded, it means our honor is being disposed of, our dignity is being tattered, and that is as if our country is broken apart," Baleegh said.

The protests began earlier this week when local laborers found copies of Qurans in a fire pit at Bagram. The U.S. military said the books inadvertently had been placed with other material from the U.S.-run prison there that troops were disposing of. Within hours, Afghans gathered to protest outside the base, holding charred remains of their holy book.

Efforts to calm Afghan anger throughout the week were largely unsuccessful, despite a range of apologies from U.S. officials. On Thursday, President Barack Obama wrote Karzai a three-page letter, expressing regret for what had taken place.

U.S. officials remained careful on Friday not to further inflame Afghan feelings.

The U.S. government was quick to announce that its guards had played no role in the violence outside the U.S. consulate in Herat, saying in a news release that the clashes between demonstrators and Afghan police took place 875 yards from the building and that no consulate guards were involved in the mayhem, which the news release said lasted for one hour.

Muheedin Noori, a spokesman for Herat's governor, said the demonstrations almost had ended peacefully when "some armed men among the protesters ... directed rioters towards the American consulate."

Pentagon officials acknowledged that the burning of the Quran could permanently mar already strained relations between Afghans and coalition troops and offered no explanation for how, after so many incidents involving the Quran, something like the Bagram burnings could be allowed to happen.

But the danger of permanently damaging a critical U.S. foreign policy relationship had the White House on Friday defending Obama's decision to formally apologize.

"We have seen a spike in violence around this mistake, and the president believed it was in the best interest of (troop) safety to make it clear that an apology was appropriate, and that the American people, and the American military in particular, does have respect for the religious views and the religious practices of the Afghan people," Josh Earnest, the White House's principal deputy press secretary, told reporters.

Some Afghans appeared willing to forgive the United States, even as they marched to protest the burnings.

In Afghanistan's central Bamiyan province, a large crowd marched through the main street of the provincial capital after Friday prayers, gathering briefly at a local landmark before dispersing.

Shopkeeper Jawad Medad told McClatchy that he had marched because he wanted the Afghan government to do more to prevent such desecrations from happening again.

Other Afghans said they believed the United States' assertion that the burning was a mistake.

Law student Shafiqullah Fazel, who did not take part in the march at Bamiyan, said he believed the Quran burning incident was not deliberate. "I hope that, in the future, (U.S. personnel) do not commit these actions," he said.

"Within two or three weeks, the people will forget this problem," he added.

(Safi reported from Afghanistan, Howard from Washington. Contributing were Lesley Clark in Washington and special correspondent Jon Stephenson in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.)

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