As violent protests flared throughout the Muslim world on Wednesday, taking more lives and for the first time targeting an American facility, the United States accused Iran and Syria of deliberately stoking the anger.
“Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes and the world ought to call them on it,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at a joint news conference with Israel’s foreign minister.
Asked for proof the two governments sparked violence, Rice’s spokesman Sean McCormack said, “What we have seen in Damascus and Tehran is qualitatively different than we have seen in other places.”
“Burning two embassies in Damascus doesn’t happen without the knowledge of the Syrian government,” McCormack said, adding that in Iran, where embassies have also been targeted, attacks could not have happened without the knowledge or assistance of the Iranian government.
The controversy surrounds cartoons first published in September by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten including one that showed the Prophet Muhammad with a turban resembling a bomb, but the protests row erupted in earnest late last month after the cartoons had some time to circulate.
Initial protests were aimed at Denmark and Norway, where the cartoons were republished, but have become more generalized, reflecting a broader underlying anger with the West.
On Wednesday, police shot four protesters to death to stop hundreds from marching on a southern U.S. military base, as President Bush, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Islamic organizations called for an end to deadly rioting across the Muslim world over drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Eleven people have been killed in the past week in protests in a dozen Afghan cities and towns. Tens of thousands of Muslims have demonstrated in the Middle East, Asia and Africa over the drawings, first published in Denmark, then Norway and several other European countries.
Appeals for calm
“We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press,” Bush said after meeting with the king. “I call upon the governments around the world to stop the violence, to be respectful, to protect property, protect the lives of innocent diplomats who are serving their countries overseas.”
Abdullah also made an appeal to both sides in the dispute.
“With all respect to press freedoms, obviously anything that vilifies the Prophet Muhammad ... or attacks Muslim sensibilities, I believe, needs to be condemned,” Abdullah said. He added that those who want to protest “should do it forthfully, articulately, express their views peacefully.
“When we see protests, when we see destruction, when we see violence — especially if it ends up taking the lives of innocent people, (it) is completely unacceptable.”’
Earlier, members of the Ulama Council — Afghanistan’s top Islamic organization — went on radio and television Wednesday to appeal for calm.
“Islam says it’s alright to demonstrate but not to resort to violence. This must stop,” said senior cleric Mohammed Usman, a council member. “We condemn the cartoons but this does not justify violence. These rioters are defaming the name of Islam.”
Incited by al-Qaida and Taliban?
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.
“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.
Senior Afghan officials said al-Qaida and the Taliban could be exploiting anger over the cartoons to incite violence.
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.
Indonesia’s foreign minister said Wednesday that radical groups around the world were exploiting public anger over the cartoons.
“The cartoons have hurt the Islamic community, so it has added to ammunition for (global) radical groups to exploit the situation and the whole thing has got out of proportion,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said.
Meanwhile, a U.S. military spokesman said the United States and other countries are examining whether extremist groups may be inciting protesters.
“The United States and other countries are providing assistance in any manner that they can ... to see if this is something larger than just a small demonstration,” Col. James Yonts said.
Elsewhere, about 300 Palestinians attacked an international observer mission in the West Bank city of Hebron and tried to set one of the buildings on fire in a protest against the cartoons.
Sixty members of the mission were inside at the time, said Gunhild Forselv, a spokeswoman for the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, or TIPH, which serves as a buffer between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the volatile city.
Eleven Danish members of TIPH left more than a week ago after protests against the cartoons began sweeping across the Muslim world, Forselv said.
The protesters chased away outnumbered Palestinian police stationed outside the mission, Forselv said. Reinforcements were called in to quell the disturbance.
More than 1,000 people also rallied Wednesday in Muslim-majority Bangladesh’s capital, burning Danish and Italian flags. There were no immediate reports of violence.
Muslims also demonstrated for the third straight day in Indian-controlled Kashmir. In Turkey, police using armored vehicles blocked some 500 ultranationalist Turks from reaching the Danish Embassy and the demonstrators dispersed peacefully.
Leaders weigh in
Denmark’s Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has defended the right of the paper to publish controversial cartoons, while insisting that Denmark is “one of the world’s most tolerant and open societies.”
In France, President Jacques Chirac asked media to avoid offending religious beliefs as another French newspaper on Wednesday reprinted the prophet caricatures. Chirac said during a Cabinet meeting that he condemned “all obvious provocations likely to dangerously kindle passions.”
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.
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.