February 24, 2012


[The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel this week became chillingly clear on Thursday as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers. Seven Afghans were killed in three provinces on Thursday and many more were injured, most in skirmishes with Afghan security forces.]

By Alissa J. Rubin, Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar
Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press
Afghan policemen run after protestors during an anti-U.S. demonstration
 in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. Thousands of Afghans
staged new demonstrations Friday over the burning of Qurans
at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — Angry protests broke out in Kabul and other Afghan cities after midday prayers on Friday, with at least 10 protesters reported killed in Herat.
The protests were in response to the burning of several Korans at the largest NATO air base in the country on Monday night, which the American commander said in a profuse apology was a mistake. President Obama has also apologized.
In Kabul, an estimated 4,000 people armed with rocks and sticks was surging along the Kabul-Jalalabad road in the east of the city and moving toward central Kabul. At least seven police vehicles were seen retreating as the crowd hurled a barrage of stones.
A few of the protesters were waving the white flag of the Taliban, and some were wearing head wrappings with a jihad slogan, “I sacrifice myself,” written on them.
Protesters throughout the city were also shouting “Death to America.”
But in a show of strength by the authorities, the demonstrators were turned back after an estimated 300 police officers and 40 police trucks blocked the protesters’ way.
After some protesters overran a police checkpoint, setting it on fire, about four police officers sought cover in a local house in east of Kabul, Gen. Abdul Zahir, director of investigations for the Kabul police, said in an interview.
About 100 protesters had surrounded the house where the officers were trapped, and some of the demonstrators were carrying weapons, he said. The police officers inside were firing warning shots, and one was injured, he said. A police helicopter could be seen flying over that part of the city.
A protest near the Eid Gah mosque also appeared to be have been successfully dispersed after gunfire was heard and riot police intervened aggressively. Officers appeared to have blocked most of the demonstrators’ access to the city center..
The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel this week became chillingly clear on Thursday as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers. Seven Afghans were killed in three provinces on Thursday and many more were injured, most in skirmishes with Afghan security forces.
Afghan officials quoted Thursday from a letter from President Obama in which he, among other things, apologized for the Koran burning. For President Hamid Karzai, the episode has fast become a political thicket. He and other government officials share with the Afghan populace a visceral disgust for the way American soldiers treated the holy book, but they recognize that violent protests could draw lethal responses from the police or soldiers, setting off a cycle of violence.
Complicating matters is that some of Mr. Karzai’s allies in Parliament and elsewhere, including former mujahedeen leaders, have openly encouraged people to take to the streets and attack NATO forces. Mr. Karzai has not spoken out against them publicly, but his government’s overall message on Thursday suggested that he did not want more violence.
Mr. Karzai met with members of both houses of Parliament at the presidential palace and urged them to help to try to contain the protests.
“The president said that ‘according to our investigation we have found that American soldiers mistakenly insulted the Koran and we will accept their apology,’ ” said Fatima Aziz, a lawmaker from Kunduz who attended the meeting.
“He said, ‘Whoever did this should be punished, and they should avoid its repetition. Insulting holy books and religion is not acceptable at all.’ ”
Ms. Aziz, who said she wept when told of the Koran burning, also said Mr. Karzai told Parliament members that the protesters’ violent response was “‘not proper.’ ”
Ms. Aziz, along with many educated Afghans, some of whom registered their views on Facebook, said she was dismayed by the exploitation of the incident for political gain and accused Iran and Pakistan of behind-the-scenes manipulation. Both countries would like to see the American military under pressure, and the reaction to the Koran burning has accomplished that.
The Taliban released two statements on Thursday: one urged Afghans to attack foreign troops and installations as well as Afghan forces who are defending them, and the second urged Afghan security forces to turn their guns on their NATO colleagues.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan calls on all the youth present in the security apparatus of the Kabul regime to fulfill their religious and national duty,” the statement said, “to repent for their past sins and to record their names with gold in the history books of Islam and Afghanistan by turning their guns on the foreign infidel invaders instead of their own people.”
Mohammed Salih Suljoqi, a lawmaker from Herat, said the episode “has been used as a tool of propaganda.”
“The noble and pure emotions of our fellow countrymen are being misused by the intelligence agencies of neighboring countries,” he said, adding that some groups “are trying to destabilize the situation and lead the country into chaos.”
“All these tragic incidents can spread a dark shadow and negatively impact the relationship of Afghanistan and the United States,” Mr. Suljoqi said.
President Karzai’s office quoted from what it called a letter of apology from Mr. Obama that was delivered Thursday by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to signal to the Afghan public that the United States understood the distress the episode had caused.
In the letter, according to Mr. Karzai’s press office, Mr. Obama wrote: “I wish to express my deep regret for the reported incident. I extend to you and the Afghan people my sincere apologies.” Mr. Obama’s office would not release the text of what it called a three-page letter on a “host of issues” between the two countries, “several sentences of which relate to this issue.”
One of the Republican candidates for president, Newt Gingrich, issued a statement that harshly criticized Mr. Obama for his apology, calling it an “outrage.”
“It is Hamid Karzai who owes the American people an apology, not the other way around,” the statement said.
Four Afghans were killed in confrontations with the police in Oruzgan Province and one in Baghlan Province. In Nangarhar Province, two Afghans protesting the Koran burning were shot to death outside an American base in Khogyani District, said Mujib Rahman, the doctor on duty at the hospital in the district center.
It was unclear whether they were shot by Afghan soldiers or NATO troops, but a NATO spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. James Williams, said NATO troops would shoot only if they were in mortal danger, and the protesters did not constitute mortal danger.
About the same time as the protest and the shootings outside the base, an Afghan Army soldier turned his gun on NATO soldiers at the base, according to other protesters and elders. Two American soldiers were killed. Mr. Karzai and the religious leaders and elders he had assigned to investigate how the Koran burning came about released a statement calling for restraint by the Afghan people and demanding that those responsible be tried swiftly.
“In view of the particular security situation in the country, we call on all our Muslim citizens of Afghanistan to exercise self-restraint and extra vigilance in dealing with the issue and avoid resorting to protests and demonstrations” that could be used by extremist groups to incite violence, the statement said, adding that NATO officials had “agreed that the perpetrators of the crime be brought to justice as soon as possible” in an open trial.
A NATO inquiry into the burning continues, a spokesman said, adding that the United States would take disciplinary action if “warranted.”
Reporting was contributed by an employee of The New York Times from Nangarhar Province and Melissa Eddy from Berlin.