KABUL, Afghanistan – Security forces opened fire and protesters stoned government and relief agency buildings as clashes in four Afghan cities left at least eight people dead Friday amid growing anti-American sentiment over the alleged desecration of Islam's holy book at Guantanamo Bay (search).
The deaths included a policeman and brought to 15 the number of people killed this week in the biggest outpouring of anti-American sentiment since the fall of the Taliban (search) in 2001 — a deepening worry for the government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai (search).
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — both U.S. allies — registered dismay over the allegations of Quran desecration, as did the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference and the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The unrest spread to the Palestinian territories Friday as hundreds of activists from the Islamic militant group Hamas staged a rare anti-U.S. protest in the Gaza Strip, with hundreds shouting "protect our holy book."
A call for mass street protests from a coalition of hard-line religious parties in Pakistan fell flat, but firebrand Muslim clerics lashed out at the United States.
"By insulting the Quran, they have challenged our belief. We are hurt ... If we don't rise against Americans, if we don't give them a strong message today, they will do it again," cleric Hafiz Hussain Ahmad told worshippers at a mosque in the Pakistani capital.
The protests broke out Tuesday after Newsweek magazine reported in its May 9 edition that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, placed Qurans in washrooms to unsettle suspects, and in one case "flushed a holy book down the toilet."
Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the U.S.-led war against terror in Afghanistan. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, insults to the Quran and Islam's prophet, Muhammad, are regarded as blasphemy and punishable by death.
Afghan officials said some of the protesters who took to the streets chanting anti-American slogans and stoning the offices of international relief organizations ignored the urgings of mullahs during Friday prayers to remain calm.
"This is organized by particular groups who are the enemies of Afghanistan," Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal told The Associated Press. "They are trying to show that the situation, that security is not good."
Shooting broke out in the southeastern city of Ghazni after protesters swarmed toward a police station and the governor's residence after Friday prayers chanting "Death to America" and pelting the buildings with rocks, witnesses said.
Shafiqullah Shafaq, a doctor at the city hospital, told AP that two civilians and a police officer were fatally shot and 21 people wounded, including the provincial police chief.
In northeastern Badakhshan, three men were killed when police fired to control hundreds of protesters in Baharak district, Gov. Abdul Majid told AP. Another 22 people were reported hurt, including three police officers.
The mob also set fire to the office of Focus, a reconstruction agency funded by the Aga Khan Foundation of the spiritual leader of the world's 20 million Ismaili Muslims, and a British aid group, Majib said.
Another man was killed in the northwest when police opened fire during a demonstration after prayers in Qala-e-Naw, capital of Badghis province, provincial police chief Amir Shah Naibzada told AP.
Four demonstrators suffered bullet wounds in a clash with police and government troops in Gardez, near the Pakistani border, and one died later in hospital, provincial police chief Hay Gul Suleyman Khel said.
A protest in Kabul ended peacefully.
The crackdown on the first major protest in Jalalabad on Tuesday that left four people dead has enflamed passions further, and demonstrations — many of them violent — have taken place in at least 10 towns and cities.
U.S. officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have promised to investigate the allegations, saying disrespect for the Quran would never be tolerated.
"Respect for religious freedom for all individuals is one of the founding principles of the United States," Rice said Thursday in Washington.
At the Pentagon, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan believe that local political factions — and not the alleged desecration — are driving the violence.
In neighboring Pakistan, the powerful opposition Islamic coalition Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal appealed for Muslims to protest after Friday prayers.
But in the main cities of Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Multan and Karachi no more than a few hundred turned out, despite fiery rhetoric from some preachers. No violence was reported, although in Quetta, protesters burned an effigy of President Bush.
Sadique Bajrani, a cleric in Karachi, urged people to remain peaceful. "Americans did a bad thing, but you should not hurt anyone while protesting against America," he said.