Protests Escalate Ahead of Bush's Planned Visit to Pakistan

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Protests in Pakistan this week, some of which turned violent and deadly, are building up to countrywide demonstrations planned for March 3, around the time President Bush is due to visit the South Asian country.

The White House confirmed earlier this week that the trip, which includes a visit to India, remains on schedule. "We have full confidence in the president's security detail and the job that they do," spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Pakistani officials have blamed the violence variously on criminals, "foreign elements" and unidentified instigators whom the government said were taking advantage of public emotion about the publication of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet, Mohammed.

Five people have been killed so far during the protests, which have witnessed mobs torch buses, burn effigies, fire bullets into the air and attack businesses associated with the West or targets seen as un-Islamic, such as movie theaters.

Much of the sentiment has been anti-American, adding to the view that some elements involved in the protests are less interested in cartoons originating from Europe than in making a statement about the U.S.

Anger is also being directed at President Pervez Musharraf, reviled by Islamists for his close ties to Washington and cooperation in the campaign against al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists.

The government called for calm, while stressing its unhappiness about the cartoons.

"Defiling the name" of Mohammed is a criminal offense under Pakistan's criminal code, and since 1991 it has been punishable by death.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said Pakistan was working with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) for a unified solution to the crisis.

The OIC, a grouping of 57 Muslim countries, is pressing for the U.N. to consider a global ban on the defamation of religion.

The March 3 nationwide protest strike has been called by the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), Pakistan's influential Islamist opposition coalition.

Other parties urged it to abandon the plan. "I shiver to think of what will happen on that day, lawmaker Aitzaz Ahsan told parliament, saying time was needed for "tempers to cool down."

The MMA said it deplored the violence which broke out during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday in Lahore, where three people died; and also on Wednesday in Peshawar, where two people were killed.

Peshawar is the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the only province under MMA control, and considered a hotbed of extremism. Peshawar police said they had arrested more than 300 people on suspicion of involvement in violence and damaging property.

Despite the violence there, NWFP chief minister Akram Khan Durrani refused to impose any bans on further protests in the province, where schools and colleges have been ordered to close for a week.

He condemned the rioting, but accused "some anti-state foreign elements" of instigating the trouble.

Protests in other cities also turned violent, although one drawing 35,000 people on Thursday in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, passed off peacefully, under the watchful eye of 5,000 police and soldiers deployed on the streets and at Western businesses.

\s4 'Hidden hands'

Musharraf called for tolerance and said those taking law into their hands were doing no service to Islam.

The government issued a warning to what it called "hidden hands" behind the violence. Information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed was quoted by the Dawn newspaper as saying elements serving their own vested interests were playing with the sentiments of "true lovers of the holy prophet."

"These protests are no longer about those people whose sentiments were hurt [by the cartoons.]," said Musharraf's spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Shaukat Sultan. "The extremists are taking advantage."

In an editorial, the Nation daily attributed the violence to domestic issues -- anger over economic deprivation and frustration about the absence of a democratic outlet in Pakistan.

"Many MMA leaders concede that the protests have gone beyond condemning the blasphemous sketches," it said.

Opposition parties are using the opportunity to denounce Musharraf and his alliance with Washington. In parliament, opposition lawmakers chanted "go Musharraf go."

More protests are expected on Friday, and the U.S. Embassy warned Americans to avoid them, saying that "even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and escalate into violence."

Other planned protests include one in Islamabad on Sunday, in Lahore one week later, and then the major countrywide strike on March 3, which the MMA says different Muslim movements around the world have decided to mark as a day of protest against the cartoons.

During the past two weeks, 18 people are reported to have been killed in protests linked to the cartoons -- 11 in Afghanistan, five in Pakistan, one in Somalia and one in Lebanon.

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow