Syria and Iran fuel the riots, Rice says

Posted in Broader Middle East | 09-Feb-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday accused Iran and Syria of deliberately seizing on the dispute over caricatures lampooning the Prophet Muhammad to incite violence, and a U.S. military official said several countries were trying to determine whether Islamic radicals were orchestrating anti-Western demonstrations.

With King Abdullah of Jordan at his side, President George W. Bush again tried to calm the rage of Islamic protesters, saying it was time for the violence to end.

"I call upon the governments around the world to stop the violence, to be respectful, to protect property, protect the lives of innocent diplomats who are serving their countries overseas," Bush said. He added: "We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press."

Speaking at the State Department, Rice said Iran and Syria have "gone out of their way to inflame sentiment and to use this to their own purposes." She added, "The world ought to call them on it." She did not elaborate.

Bush and Rice spoke hours after four more people died in Afghanistan when police officers fired into a crowd outside a U.S. military base, bringing the total of people killed in the protests there to 13. The leaders of Austria, France and Russia also condemned the violence. (Page 4)

Colonel James Yonts, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, said there was no evidence linking Al Qaeda or the Taliban to the protests that have spread across Afghanistan, but he said Washington was investigating whether there was a common thread linking the demonstrations across the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.

"The United States and other countries," he said, "are providing assistance in any manner they can to see if this is something larger than just a small demonstration: If there is a tie to it, if there is an infrastructure, a connection."

Later attempts to reach Yonts or other spokesmen at the U.S. Central Command with knowledge of such an investigation were unsuccessful.

"We believe in a free press," Bush said with Abdullah, a close ally whose family claims direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad. "We also recognize that with freedom comes responsibilities."

The White House has walked a narrow line, wary of undercutting its support for press freedom, but concerned about fanning anti-American feelings already heated by the Iraq war and controversies over the treatment of Muslim prisoners and of the Koran.

The State Department last week at first termed publication of the cartoons "not acceptable," wording that drew some charges that the administration was being hypocritical - advocating freedom, but setting limits.

The president was more cautious Wednesday. He said: "We made it clear to his majesty, and he made it clear to me, that we reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in the free press."

Abdullah went further, saying: "Obviously, anything that vilifies the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, or attacks Muslim sensibilities, I believe, needs to be condemned."

He added: "But at the same time, those that want to protest should do it thoughtfully, articulately, express their views peacefully."

Violence, the king said, was "completely unacceptable."

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that behind-the-scenes diplomatic work by U.S. officials could help more to defuse tensions than public condemnations.

"Nobody in the Muslim world is especially interested in what President Bush has to say about this," said Alterman, formerly a State Department expert on the Middle East. "But they do look for signals from their national leadership and religious leadership, and that's a case where diplomacy can make a difference."

Bush's handling of the matter has been eased by the fact that few American newspapers have published the cartoons, and protests by American Muslims have been limited.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is the only major American newspaper to have printed any of the cartoons so far. The paper's editor, Amanda Bennett, said it did so to help readers better understand why the cartoons had provoked such a violent reaction abroad.

The Associated Press did not distribute the cartoons in the United States. Its executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, said the agency would not "distribute content that is known to be offensive, with rare exceptions."

The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists issued a statement saying that it "emphatically and unequivocally supports the right of free expression by the world's cartoonists." But it added that "the Islamic community's outrage over the drawings is understandable" and urged both sides to show greater understanding.

In a telephone interview, the group's vice president, the cartoonist Nick Anderson of the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky, elaborated:

"Just because you have the right to publish these, that does not mean you have the obligation," he said.

Anderson said he has come to believe that the Danish editors "wanted to put a stick in the eye of their local clerics and did this intentionally, belittled and mocked the founder of a religion."

Of editors at other papers who printed the cartoon to defend press freedom, Anderson said he did not question their motives. But he added: "I'm afraid they're falling into a trap. If you're doing it in solidarity, look at with whom you're expressing solidarity."

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group, said he thought that the reaction in the United States had been relatively restrained partly because "the American media has been very responsible in reporting on this issue."

"They haven't felt a burning need to display these cartoons out of some childish need to prove they have a right to a free press, which we all know everyone has," said Hooper, whose group is based in Washington.

Hooper supported the administration's reaction as constructive, saying, "They supported freedom of press, but with freedom comes responsibility - responsibility not to gratuitously insult other people's faith."