BEIRUT

Middle East

Western missions edgy as film anger simmers

Supporters of Pakistan's outlawed Islamic hard line group Jamaat ud Dawa (JD) burn portraits of Terry Jones, a Florida pastor during a rally against an anti-Islam movie in Lahore on September 16, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / Arif Ali)

DUBAI/BEIRUT: Western embassies across the Muslim world remained on high alert Sunday and the United States urged vigilance after days of anti-American violence provoked by a video mocking the Prophet Mohammad.

With protests against the film continuing from London to Lahore, Western diplomatic missions were on edge. Germany followed the U.S. lead and withdrew some staff from its embassy in Sudan, which was stormed Friday.

Washington ordered non-essential staff and family members to leave its embassy there Saturday after Khartoum turned down a U.S. request to send Marines to bolster security.

Non-essential U.S. personnel have also been withdrawn from Tunisia, and Washington urged U.S. citizens to leave the capital Tunis after the embassy there was targeted Friday.

The protests peaked Friday and were ebbing by Sunday. Around 350 people chanted slogans at a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in London; a small group of protesters burned an American flag outside the U.S. Embassy in the Turkish capital, and in Pakistan there were small protests in more than a dozen cities.

One person was killed when unidentified people opened fire at a protest in the southern city of Hyderabad, and five people were injured in clashes with police in Karachi as around 1,000 protesters tried to reach the U.S. consulate, police said.

The violence is the most serious wave of anti-American protests in the Muslim world since the start of the Arab Spring revolts last year. At least nine people were killed in protests in several countries Friday.

It was fanned by anger over a video, posted online under several titles including “Innocence of Muslims,” that mocked the Prophet Mohammad.

The crisis presents U.S. President Barack Obama with a foreign policy headache as November polls approach.

Some U.S. officials have suggested the Benghazi attack was planned by Islamist militants using the video as a pretext, a hypothesis endorsed by Mohammad Magarief, the president of Libya’s national assembly.

“Call it whatever you want, Al-Qaeda or not, what happened was an act by a group with an agenda for revenge. They chose a specific time, technique and certain victims. This is what it was all about,” Magarief told Reuters.

In a statement, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula said the attack on the U.S. consulate was in revenge for the killing of the network’s No. 2 Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi, and called for more violent demonstrations against U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Africa, the SITE Intelligence Group reported Saturday.

It urged Muslims in the West to attack American interests in their countries of residence. “The killing of Sheikh Abu Yahya only increased the enthusiasm and determination of the sons of [Libyan independence hero] Omar al-Mukhtar to take revenge upon those who attack our Prophet,” AQAP said in a statement quoted by the U.S.-based monitoring group.

Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based offshoot did not claim direct responsibility for Tuesday’s attack but it stressed that “the uprising of our people in Libya, Egypt and Yemen against America and its embassies is a sign to notify the United States that its war is not directed against groups and organizations ... but against the Islamic nation that has rebelled against injustice.”

However, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said that preliminary information indicated the attack had not been premeditated.

“There’s no question, as we’ve seen in the past with things like ‘The Satanic Verses,’ with the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, there have been such things that have sparked outrage and anger and this has been the proximate cause of what we’ve seen,” she said.

She said the attack in Benghazi, powered by mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to be a copycat of protests that had erupted hours earlier outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, spurred by excerpts of the film posted on YouTube.

“It seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons,” Rice said, adding that such weaponry was easy to come by in post-revolutionary Libya.

Whether those extremists had ties to Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups has yet to be determined, the U.S. envoy said, noting that the FBI has yet to complete its investigation.

Magarief told CBS News that about 50 people had been arrested in connection with the attack. Some were from abroad.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he hoped the worst of the violence was over but U.S. missions must remain on guard.

“It would appear that there is some leveling off on the violence that we thought might take place,” he told reporters on his plane en route to Asia Saturday.

“Having said that, these demonstrations are likely to continue over the next few days, if not longer.”

He said rapid deployment teams were ready to respond to incidents.

U.S. officials have deployed counterterrorism Marine units to Libya and Yemen and stationed two destroyers off the North African coast.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti flatly rejected Saturday a U.S. request to send special forces to protect the Khartoum embassy, the official SUNA news agency said, quoting his office.

The foreign minister of Egypt, where hundreds of people were arrested in four days of clashes, assured Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that U.S. diplomatic grounds would be protected.

Mohammad Kamel Amr told Clinton in a telephone call that the film had been designed to incite racial hatred and was therefore “contradictory with laws aimed at developing relationships of peace and mutual understanding between nations and states.”

Clinton undertook a round of telephone diplomacy Saturday, calling her counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Britain and France, as well as the prime minister of Libya and the Somali president, in a bid to rally support, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Morocco’s King Mohammad VI, in a telephone call with Clinton, slammed both the “odious” killing of the U.S. ambassador and the film.

The palace said in a statement that Mohammad expressed “sincere condolences” over the killing but also condemned “the inadmissible provocation against the sacred values of the Muslim religion,” in the statement carried by the Moroccan news agency MAP.

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh denounced Saturday attacks on diplomats and embassies but also called on governments and international bodies to criminalize insults against prophets and excoriated the film that has prompted a wave of fury across the Middle East.

“It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the wicked crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction,” he said in a speech carried by state news agency SPA.

And despite Tehran’s hostility toward Washington and its own condemnation of the movie, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari said the killing of the U.S. ambassador was unjustified.

“Definitely this did not warrant killing,” Jafari told a news conference in Tehran. He said that “due to their anger [of protesters], this incident [the killings] happened.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 17, 2012, on page 1.

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