PESHAWAR, Pakistan – It was part poetry recital, part prayer meeting, part street theater, part pledge of allegiance. It was carefully choreographed, but at times the raw-voiced roar of the crowd carried echoes of genuine rage.
Anti-American demonstrations like this one, held Saturday on one of the oldest market streets in the frontier city of Peshawar, have become routine in recent weeks, a predictable and seemingly unchanging feature of the Pakistani political landscape.
The trappings vary little from one rally to the next: A turbaned mullah's fiery oratory precedes the ritual torching of an effigy of President Bush. Chants of "Death to America!" turn to shouts of "Long live Usama!" and end in apocalyptic calls for all-out jihad — holy war.
For all their tightly scripted nature, though, these rallies provide a window into the thinking of those framing the American anti-terror campaign as a war on Islam.
Saturday's four-hour rally had a backdrop rich in history and tradition — the Khyber Bazaar, a maze of merchants' stalls in the heart of Peshawar's Old City. The flatbed truck from which mullahs addressed the crowd through loudspeakers was parked at the foot of the Street of Storytellers, named for those who spun teahouse tales of Silk Route journeys.
A crowd of more than 5,000 faithful eventually gathered, marching in chanting groups from nearby Islamic seminaries.
Police watched the rally but kept their distance — a sign of the Pakistani government's reluctance to be seen as cracking down on pro-Taliban parties like Jamiat Ulema Islam, which organized the demonstration.
Most participants spent the entire time crouched on the street in the punishing midday sun. On the fringes was a carnival atmosphere — boys selling Usama bin Laden T-shirts, vendors peddling chunks of coconut and sugar cane, platters of sweets passed hand to hand.
Watching from a balcony, a 16-year-old religious student named Hizbullah raised his voice to join the chants. "Bush is a dog!" the speaker yelled. "Dog! Dog!" the crowd howled back.
"Whatever we do, we will never hand over Usama," said Hizbullah, pausing a few moments in his chanting. "If Americans attack Afghanistan, nothing would make me happier than to kill them. If I saw one after that had happened" — he gave a stranger a hard-eyed look — "I wouldn't hesitate for a moment."
Besides invoking larger Islamic loyalties, several speakers reminded the crowd of tribal traditions as well.
Nearly all those in attendance were Pashtun, the same ethnic group that spawned the Taliban. It has an inflexible behavior code requiring the avenging of any insult to honor — real or perceived — and the offering of unstinting hospitality, even to an unwanted guest.
More than two hours passed before the portly main speaker, Maulana Fazal ur-Rehman, the national head of Jamiat Ulema Islam, took the microphone. The crowd, raucous and volatile during other speeches, fell silent.
Pakistan's government has been touting U.S. steps such as the lifting of 2-year-old economic sanctions against Pakistan over its nuclear program, and the mullah decried such benefits as shameful.
"A prostitute also earns money at the cost of honor!" he told the crowd.
By early Sunday, he was under house arrest. Armed police and paramilitary troops were stationed at his house in northwestern Pakistan to stop him from leading nationwide anti-U.S. rallies, his party and police said.
While the government declared this past week that U.S. evidence against bin Laden was enough to support the accusations of involvement, the mullah and others insisted no such proof existed.
His listeners were men only; a smattering of female Western journalists were ordered not to mingle with the crowd. Some signs in English were waved for the benefit of TV cameras.
While earlier speakers stuck to chants and slogans, the mullah's speech was laced with obscure Koranic references to support the notion that Islamic precepts justify jihad in this instance.
One complicated religious parable referred to an elephant-borne attack — the elephant being the symbol of Bush's political party, the mullah noted — and the attackers being routed by birds dropping stones from their beaks.
Another hammered-on theme was that of Afghanistan as quagmire, a killing ground for a long succession of outsiders, including the British and the Russians.
"America, America, remember Vietnam," the demonstrators chanted. "Afghanistan will be your graveyard."