QALAT, Afghanistan – Angry mobs ransacked government offices and relief agencies and clashed with police in several provinces Friday in a fourth day of growing anti-American demonstrations. The violence left at least eight people dead and raised the death toll since Wednesday to about 15, officials said.
The demonstrations represent the most widespread expression of anti-American sentiment since U.S.-led troops ousted the Islamic Taliban militia in late 2001. They have caused growing worry for the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, who is due to visit Washington later this month.
The protests erupted Wednesday in the eastern city of Jalalabad and have now spread to the capital, Kabul, and four other areas. Demonstrations also took place in other Muslim countries Friday, although no serious violence was reported. Protesters gathered in several cities in Pakistan, as well as in Indonesia and the Palestinian territories.
The protests were sparked by a May 9 report in Newsweek magazine that interrogators at the U. S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had placed copies of the Quran in bathrooms and flushed one text down a toilet.
Many of the detainees at Guantanamo are Afghans, and stories of American interrogators desecrating the Quran to extract confessions have circulated at least since early 2003, when some released prisoners returned to Afghanistan.
Some U.S. officials and analysts said the report, which appeared as a small item in Newsweek, was being manipulated as a way to inflame passions and undercut Karzai’s authority ahead of his U.S. trip.
At the Pentagon, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the rioting in Afghanistan could be related to domestic Afghan politics. A State Department official, who requested anonymity, said the demonstrations in Pakistan were being manipulated by al Qaeda supporters in retaliation for the arrest last week of Abu Farraj al-Libbi, identified as a senior al Qaeda leader, along with 10 other suspected terrorists.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that U.S. officials “share and understand” Muslim concerns. “Disrespect for the holy Quran is something that the United States will never tolerate,” he told reporters.