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Afghanistan: NATO Expects Violence Over Cartoons To Subside In North

Demonstrators in Kabul on 8 February (epa) NATO officials at a base in Mazar-e Sharif say they think protests in northern Afghanistan about cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad are likely to subside soon. Some local Afghans agree, saying the storming of NATO bases in response to the European newspaper cartoons does not have wide support in the north. They suspect much of the uproar has been orchestrated by people with links to the insurgency in the south or neighboring countries like Pakistan or Iran. Some suggest rival militia factions in the north also could be trying to manipulate public anger about the cartoons.

MAZAR-E SHARIF, 8 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- NATO officers in Afghanistan say they think violent protests against Western targets have passed their peak in northern cities like Maymana, Sheberghan, and Mazar-e Sharif.

The NATO officers are part of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They tell RFE/RL that anger over depictions in European newspapers of the Prophet Muhammad has been exploited by a small number of people.

One British military officer in Mazar-e Sharif says those trying to exploit public anger have "points to score" against ISAF and the West.

Police chief Mohammad Noor -- a man with considerable influence around Mazar-e Sharif -- says he agrees that the violence runs counter to the feelings of most Afghans in the north.

Still Supported?

But they say ISAF retains strong legitimacy in northern Afghanistan -- and that the violence is likely to subside in the days ahead.

Captain Gareth Davis is the operations officer at ISAF's northern regional command. He told RFE/RL that violent demonstrations outside of several NATO bases in Afghanistan follow a familiar pattern and should not affect the stabilization effort in the long term.

"I think it will be a spike [of violence] and everything will go quiet again," he said. "There have been previous incidents like this -- both in Afghanistan and all over the world -- from varying sources, whether it be a reaction to something in Guantanamo Bay or something like that. There has been this type of incident before [and] that has all been cleared up. And there hasn't been a long-lasting effect against [NATO personnel] here."

On 7 February, a demonstration in the northwestern city of Maymana turned violent when several hundred protesters stormed a base staffed by a Norwegian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team. Rioters threw rocks, Molotov cocktails and, according to some reports, hand grenades. They also exchanged gunfire with militia troops loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the forces that currently are responsible for security in Faryab and other northern provinces.

NATO immediately sent two planes full of British soldiers to Maymana as reinforcements. They are part of a rapid response unit stationed near Mazar-e Sharif. Six Danish soldiers in ISAF also were evacuated to Mazar-e Sharif. They were considered at risk because Danish newspapers had been the first to publish the offending cartoons.

Major Fred Whichelo is ISAF's intelligence officer at the NATO base in Mazar-e Sharif -- a forward operations base that serves as headquarters for a joint civilian-military Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Whichelo tells RFE/RL that he does not think the violent protests have jeopardized ISAF's relations with the local population.

"We have got, generally, very good consent from the population here in the north of Afghanistan," Whichelo said. "There have been instances in the past of other controversies. They have passed by without significant violence or difficulty in the north. And that is because we do maintain an extremely good relationship with the local people by having one of those [NATO-led] observation teams on the ground talking to people at the local level."

Claims Of Outside Interference

Both Whichelo and Davis say that although they have no hard evidence at this time, they suspect violence at protests in the north has been orchestrated by people with links to the insurgency in the south, to neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran, or to disputes between rival Afghan militias in the north.

Captain Davis said the violence was organized by people "with points to prove" against ISAF and the West. This, he said, was virtually certain to have been the case in Kabul where clashes between police and protesters also have occurred outside of NATO and U.S. compounds.

"In Kabul I would say the violence they have had in Kabul is almost definitely caused by people with a massive point to prove," he said. "Not just because they want to prove a point about those Danish cartoons, but because they want [to strike at] ISAF or have a go at Westerners. There are enough people in Kabul who think like that."

Major Whichelo says Mazar-e Sharif has suffered a series of attacks in the past six months linked to outside militants -- or at least carried out by locals known to have sought religious instruction at some of Pakistan's more radical madrassahs.

Previous Violence

A British soldier was killed in an ambush in October by a gunman who had recently returned from Pakistan. A home-made explosive device killed two Swedish soldiers in November. A suicide bomber bungled a December attack in Mazar-e Sharif -- killing only himself with his explosives. Another would-be suicide bomber was arrested by Afghan security forces earlier this week before he could attempt to assassinate a local commander at the center of recent factional disputes in the north.

Police chief Mohammad Noor -- a man with considerable influence around Mazar-e Sharif -- says he agrees that the violence runs counter to the feelings of most Afghans in the north.

Noor told RFE/RL that "elements outside Afghanistan" who may be trying to manipulate anger over the cartoons are those who are unhappy about the presence of NATO-led ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Noor insists that 90 percent of the Afghan people rely on ISAF and are quite content with their presence.

Noor said it is a small group of people who are trying to use the cartoon controversy to undermine NATO in Afghanistan: "As you know, every country has its problems. There are a limited number of people who oppose the government. So we can also say about this case that there is a very limited number of people [involved in the violent demonstrations]. Not all of the people of Afghanistan are [protesting]."

Noor concludes that ISAF will remain important for Afghanistan for as long as security remains important to the Afghan people.

The Cartoon Controversy

The Cartoon Controversy

Islamabad residents protesting against the Prophet Muhammad cartoons on February 15 (epa)

An Unfolding Conflict

19 February 2006: A full-page apology by "Jyllands-Posten," dated 5 February, appears in papers in Saudi Arabia. Churches in Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan are attacked, as too is the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia.

18 February: Forty-five die in Nigeria as churches, hotels, and shops are torched in a predominantly Muslim northern state. Roberto Calderoli resigns from the Italian cabinet after being blamed for riots in Libya that ended with the destruction of the Italian Embassy and the loss of 10 lives. The Libyan interior minister and local police chiefs are sacked for using disproportionate force to quell the riots.

17 February: Ten Libyan protestors are killed during a demonstration that culminates with the burning of the Italian Embassy in Tripoli. Protestors link the demonstrations to the decision of an Italian minister to wear T-shirts showing the cartoons.

16 February: The Russian media watchdog pledges to take a tough line against any organization accused of "insulting religious feelings."

15 February: The Danish government says the Iraqi government wants Danish troops to remain. A far-right Italian minister, Roberto Calderoli, says he plans to wear T-shirts emblazoned with some of the "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons. In Pakistan, three more protestors are killed, one in Lahore and two in Peshawar, as tens of thousands demonstrate.

14 February: Pakistani police shoot dead two protesters in Lahore. In Iran, crowds attack the British and German embassies. Political leaders in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah call for Danish troops to leave the country. In Israel, a cartoonist launches a competition for the best anti-Semitic cartoons by Jews themselves. In Europe, the Portugese president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, promises support for Denmark and the democratic system in a dispute that reminds him of his country's dictatorial past.

13 February: A leading Iranian newspaper, "Hamshahri," invites cartoons about the Holocaust in a competition aimed at testing the limits of free speech in the West.

12 February: Intelligence reports suggest Danes in Indonesia are under threat. Denmark urges its nationals to leave the country. It had previously made similar appeals to Danes in many Muslim countries.

10 February: Thousands of Malayans protest, as Western and Muslim political, cultural, and religious leaders gather to discuss differences between the Western and Muslim worlds.

9 February: The Swedish government forces offline a website that asked readers to submit their own cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

8 February: Security forces open fire on protestors in the Afghan city of Qalat, killing four, on a day of angry and sometimes violent scenes around the world. Washington accuses the Syrian and Iranian governments of inciting violence.

7 February: Iran's largest newspaper invites cartoons of the Holocaust, saying it wants to test the limits of Western freedom of expression.

6 February: Widespread unrest over the cartoons reported in Afghanistan. One person was reported killed and four wounded in Laghman Province.

6 February: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expresses "distress" over the publication of the cartoons, but condemns the violent reactions in the Muslim world.

5 February: The Danish Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, is torched.

4 February: Mobs burn the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Chilean embassies in Syria. Protests in Denmark turn violent.

1 February: Papers in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain run reprints of the cartoons in a show of solidarity.

30 January: The EU says it will take World Trade Organization (WTO) action if the boycott persists. Several Islamic groups, including Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, call for a worldwide boycott of Danish products. Masked gunmen in storm EU office in Gaza. The Danish paper apologizes.

29 January: "Jyllands-Posten" prints a statement in Arabic saying the drawings were published in line with freedom of expression and not a campaign against Islam. Palestinians burn Danish flags and Libya announces it will close its embassy in Denmark.

28 January: The Danish company Arla places advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers to try to stop boycott of its products.

27 January: Thousands denounce the cartoons during Friday prayers in Iraq.

26 January: Saudi Arabia recalls its ambassador to Denmark and initiates a boycott of Danish goods.

10 January 2006: The cartoons are reprinted by the Norwegian newspaper "Magazinet."

14 November: Jamaat-e-Islami, a Pakistan-based group, protests in Islamabad.

20 October: Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries complain to Danish Prime Minister. "Jyllands-Posten" reports that illustrators have received death threats.

30 September 2005: The Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten" publishes 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Calming The Storm

Former Jailed Iranian Cartoonist Discusses Muhammad Caricatures

Western, Eastern Media View Cartoon Crisis As Test Of Values