KABUL, Afghanistan – The burning of the Muslim holy book by a Florida pastor last week went largely unnoticed in the U.S. But it enraged a mob that stormed U.N. offices in a normally placid area of Afghanistan, an outbreak of violence that also signaled broadening anti-American sentiment and the difficulty of handing security responsibility back to Afghans.
Worshippers attacked U.N. headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif after a sermon during Friday prayers that denounced the burning of the Quran last month after a mock trial organized by the Dove World Outreach Center. The pastor of the small fringe congregation received worldwide publicity last fall when he announced he was going to burn a copy of the book but later said he changed his mind.
The crowd overpowered and killed guards who tried to fight them off, set parts of the U.N. compound ablaze and hunted down workers trapped inside, according to Afghan police.
The marchers, some of them carrying weapons, shouted “Death to infidels!” as they approached the compound, one of the most visible signs of the Western presence in the northern Afghan city.
U.N. officials said seven foreigners – four guards and three other U.N. staff – were killed. Afghan officials said the four guards were Nepalese. Officials in both Sweden and Norway said one of their citizens was killed, and reports said the seventh foreigner slain was from Romania.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain LeRoy said the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, Staffan De Mistura, who is in Mazar-i-Sharif, believes “the U.N. was not the target.”
“They wanted to find an international target and the U.N. was the one there in Mazar-i-Sharif,” LeRoy told reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
In part because of the relative calm in recent years, Mazar-i-Sharif was designated last month by President Hamid Karzai as among the first major cities in which Afghan forces would take the lead in providing security. That process, to be expanded to other parts of the country by 2014, is a cornerstone of the strategy for U.S. and other Western forces to eventually pull out of Afghanistan.
After taking office, President Barack Obama increased U.S. troop levels twice in an effort to stop a resurgence by the Taliban. They now make up about two-thirds of the 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials say they will start withdrawing some forces in less than four months.
They claim they have stopped the Taliban’s progress, in part by targeting midlevel commanders in pinpoint raids and pushing insurgents out of key districts in the south. But they acknowledge that it will become clearer how much progress they’ve made in spring, when fighting typically picks up.
Obama condemned the attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, offered condolences for the deaths and injuries, and called for calm.
In an emailed statement, Florida pastor Terry Jones did not say why he had changed his mind about burning the Quran. Church-affiliated websites said the Muslim holy book was accused of “inciting murder, rape, and terrorist activities” and subjected to a six-hour mock trial March 20, after which it was soaked in kerosene and burned.
A blog post by JoBeth Gerrard, a 53-year-old unemployed accountant and member of the jury, said the mock trial was attended by about 50 people and included testimony from “expert witnesses” who included two former Muslims who had converted to Christianity, an Egyptian Christian and a woman who had been married to a Muslim who allegedly beat her.
In a telephone interview Friday, she said she was not particularly concerned that the book burning had incited violence. “Well, no,” she said, “because I keep up with what’s going on and I know that (Muslims) are constantly killing people, burning churches and killing Christians. Whether some guy in the U.S. burns a Quran or not, it doesn’t make a difference.”
In a statement, Jones did not comment on whether the church’s act had led to the deaths. Instead he said it was time to “hold Islam accountable” and called on the United States and the U.N. to hold “these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities.”
The violence began Friday when a crowd poured out of Mazar-i-Sharif’s landmark Blue Mosque following an incendiary sermon preached at noon prayers, the most important religious occasion of the Muslim week.
Similar sermons set off angry demonstrations in Kabul and Herat, but neither of those boiled over into large-scale violence.
Many in the Kabul crowd were angry, excited young men. One, a 26-year-old student who gave only the name of Samiullah, said the protesters had come to raise their voices against what he called a “wicked act of blasphemy.”
Friday’s demonstrations in Afghanistan also came against the backdrop of growing anti-American sentiment, aggravated by the ongoing war-crimes case against a group of U.S. soldiers. The self-styled “Kill Team” is accused of murder in the deaths of at least three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province last year.
On Thursday, as gruesome photos of the American soldiers posing with the corpses of victims began circulating in Afghanistan after being published in Rolling Stone magazine, President Hamid Karzai denounced the killings and demanded those responsible be punished.
The mosque sermons inciting crowds appeared to be part of an orchestrated campaign, as is often the case with anti-Western protests.
Two Western diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested that insurgents or their sympathizers might have been seeking to demonstrate the government’s weakness in Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat, because of the cities’ intended status as early proving grounds for the strategy to hand over responsibility to Afghan security forces.
Hundreds of people, many chanting anti-American slogans, took part in the protest in Kabul, massing near a heavily guarded area where the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of the NATO force are located.