Thursday, February 9, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday accused Syria and Iran of deliberately inciting Islamic outrage over the publication of cartoons in a string of European newspapers that mocked the prophet Muhammad.

Both countries have seen violent demonstrations targeting the diplomatic missions of Denmark, where the cartoons were first published, and other European nations — part of a string of recent angry protests across the Muslim world.

Political leaders in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon have tried to tamp down the unrest, Miss Rice said, while the authoritarian regimes in Damascus and Tehran had not.

“Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiment and to use this to their own purposes,” she told reporters. “The world ought to call them on it.”

President Bush, meeting Jordan’s King Abdullah II in the Oval Office yesterday, condemned the deadly Muslim protests, yet also defended Islam and a free press.

“We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press,” Mr. Bush said.

“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.”

The Jordanian king walked the tightrope many moderate Arab and Muslim leaders have faced in the controversy, condemning both the cartoons and the violent protests in their wake.

“Obviously, anything that vilifies the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, or attacks Muslim sensibilities needs to be condemned. At the same time, those who want to protest should do it thoughtfully, articulately and express their views peacefully,” the king said.

A growing number of Arab and Muslim voices have condemned the violent demonstrations in recent days, including Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the spiritual and political leaders of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslim community.

The leading Islamic organization in Afghanistan, where 11 persons have died in three days of rioting, the Kuwaiti parliament and Syria’s top religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheik Ahmed Badreddine Hassun, have all issued public statements against violence.

But it was Muslim clerics and Arab governments who also played a key role in fanning Islamic outrage over the past three months. The anti-Western demonstrations only erupted four months after the cartoons were first published in Copenhagen.

A delegation of Danish Muslim activists — frustrated over what they said was their own government’s tepid response to their protests — traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria in December and January with a dossier of the cartoons and other, even more offensive material that was never published in the Danish press.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan Middle East scholar, said secular governments like Egypt, already under pressure from domestic Islamist movements, saw the cartoon affair as a way to boost their own religious credentials with the faithful.

“The crisis has become intertwined with all the postcolonial crises of the region, from the foreign military occupation of Iraq to the new instability in Syria and Lebanon,” Mr. Cole said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in November was one of the first senior Arab officials to speak out against the cartoons, and Cairo sponsored an Arab League resolution condemning what it called an “attack on the noble values of Islam.”

Some Afghan officials have blamed the deadly attacks on NATO bases in Afghanistan on militants of the ousted fundamentalist Taliban regime, manipulating popular outrage over the Muhammad cartoons for their own ends.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen yesterday announced he was excluding local Muslim leaders who organized the tour of Middle East capitals from government talks on ethnic integration, accusing them of whipping up anti-Danish hysteria.

“Some people in this country have poured fuel on the fire by spreading disinformation in the wake of that trip,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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