- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

From combined dispatches

BEIRUT — Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims turned a religious ceremony in Lebanon yesterday into a protest against cartoons in the Western press lampooning the prophet Muhammad.

Sunni-Shi’ite tensions were blamed for violence marring the holiest Shi’ite festival elsewhere, with a suicide bombing and subsequent rioting killing at least 27 persons in Pakistan and sectarian clashes killing at least five in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, tens of thousands of Shi’ites celebrating Ashoura marched and beat themselves with chains and blades in blood-soaked processions through the holy city of Karbala. No holiday-related violence was reported amid tight security to prevent Sunni Arabs from attacking the event, as they have the previous two years, killing more than 230 people.

In Beirut, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrilla group pledged there would be no compromise until there was a full apology from Denmark, where a series of satirical cartoons portraying the prophet first appeared.

“Today, we are defending the dignity of our prophet with a word, a demonstration, but let [President] George Bush and the arrogant world know that if we have to … we will defend our prophet with our blood, not our voices,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told the crowd.

Referring to remarks Wednesday in which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Syria and Iran of deliberately stirring up the cartoon protests, he said: “Defending the prophet should continue all over the world. Let Condoleezza Rice and Bush and all the tyrants shut up. We are an Islamic nation that cannot tolerate, be silent or be lax when they insult our prophet and sanctities.”

The annual Shi’ite festival of mourning marks the death of Imam Hussein, the prophet’s grandson, killed in Karbala 1,300 years ago. Security sources put the turnout in Beirut at 400,000.

In Qatar, Khaled Meshaal, political leader of the militant group Hamas, which won Palestinian elections last month, joined in denouncing the cartoons but also called for a dialogue with the West.

“We call on Western leaders to apologize and put restrictions on freedom when it involves religion,” he said.

“The ball is in their court. Hamas will work with them to calm the situation. … We have asked for dialogue; they are the ones who insist on clashing of civilizations.”

Although many European newspapers have defended the cartoons as an expression of free speech, the 25-member European Union is proposing that the press adopt a voluntary code of conduct to avoid a repeat of the furor.

By doing so, “the press will give the Muslim world the message: We are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression,” Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner for freedom, justice and security, told the London Daily Telegraph newspaper. “We can and we are ready to self-regulate that right.”

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is to travel to Muslim nations to try to calm some of the anger. Meanwhile, tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites was blamed for the violence yesterday in Pakistan, where a suicide bombing triggered a riot that left a provincial town in flames and at least 27 persons dead and more than 50 wounded.

After the bombing, security forces battled angry worshippers who torched shops and cars and took up positions on hills overlooking the town of Hangu, where the sound of gunfire echoed through the smoky streets.

Akram Durrani, the top elected official in the province, said a preliminary investigation showed the violence began with a suicide bombing. The government declared a curfew and deployed its army to restore order in the market town of about 200,000 people.

In neighboring Afghanistan, hundreds of Shi’ites and Sunnis clashed in the western city of Herat, hurling grenades and burning mosques. At least five persons were killed and 51 wounded.

Sectarian attacks often have marred the annual rite in Pakistan, but rarely in Afghanistan. Two years ago, a suicide attack on a Shi’ite procession by Sunni militants in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta killed 44 persons.

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