PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Protesters took to the streets in mostly peaceful rallies across Pakistan today, failing to turn out the kind of fury or numbers promised by Muslim extremist groups opposed to the government's Afghan policy.
Officials and their supporters were clearly relieved that rallies in places like Peshawar, Quetta, Islamabad and elsewhere did not lead to much violence on this Muslim holy day, the first since the U.S. began bombing in Afghanistan on Sunday night.
The notable exception was the city of Karachi, were a mob burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, looted and destroyed other stores and injured a number of people in widespread street fights.
The government of President Pervez Musharraf had prepared all week for what his opponents had loudly predicted would be a day-long barrage of anti-American rallies and strikes. Police, army units and special frontier guard units were called out in force to keep the peace, and they generally succeeded in keeping protesters in check.
Barbed wire was rolled out and machine guns were placed in position along several major streets in Peshawar, which some expected to be the scene of the most demonstrative rallies. But a noontime rally of several thousand in the old market section of the city passed without incident, as did a number of smaller protests around town.
That scene was repeated in the southern city of Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan Province and the scene of the most violent demonstrations this week. Estimated crowds of between 5,000 to 10,000 turned out in different parts of the city after afternoon prayers, but the demonstrations broke up peacefully.
"There are only a few extremist elements who tried to disrupt law and order, but we have given instructions not to allow anybody to take law in their hands," a presidential spokesman said during the day.
In most cases, the anti-U.S. venom offered up by the speakers was far more violent than the actions of any protesters.
"If you see Americans — male, female, it doesn't matter — attack them," Mullah Hassan Can Medhi raged at an afternoon rally of several hundred in Peshawar. "You must attack them because they are attacking us, and killing many innocent people."
The crowd exhorted Medhi for more, but they generally ignored the American journalists who were in the crowd to cover the event.
The scene on most Pakistani streets Friday did not reflect the images of rabid, flag- and effigy-burning Pakistanis that have been beamed to America on television. Many of those at the rallies, particularly the numerous teens who turned out, treated the events more like street festivals than serious political demonstrations.
Government officials were relieved by day's end because Friday's rallies came just a day after unconfirmed reports that more than 100 Afghan civilians had been killed in attacks on Karam village, near the Pakistani border.
Reports of the alleged attack had widely made their way around Pakistan by Friday morning.
Despite the relative calm, the perception of "widespread unrest," in the words of one European journalist at Friday's Foreign Ministry press conference on Friday, privately had some Pakistani officials fuming.
"Demonstrations and public rowdiness are very much a fact of life in this country," one Pakistani intelligence official said in an evening telephone interview. "We're used to much worse than this, really."