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    South Asia
     Feb 8, 2006
Stoking the jihadi fires
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - In some parts of the Muslim world, anger over the publication of blasphemous cartoons might be cooled by burning a few diplomatic buildings or setting fire to Israeli flags or effigies of US President George W Bush. But in the region that starts on the Arabian Sea shores of the Pakistani port city of Karachi and ends in the landlocked areas of Afghanistan, passions will not be as easily tempered.

With the Taliban and al-Qaeda gearing for a summer offensive in Afghanistan, using Pakistan's tribal area of North Waziristan as a

base, they want to increase their political mass support once they ramp up their activities on the guerrilla front.

At the same time, they are looking for fresh blood from the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Pakistani jihadi diehards to join their jihad.

Incidents such as the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in an unsavory light play right into the hands of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in fanning the already simmering embers of discontent among the masses.

On Monday, thousands of demonstrators gathered all over Afghanistan, from northern Takhar province to Kandahar in the south. Afghan security forces opened fire in some places, leaving at least four dead.

The worst of the violence was outside Bagram, the main US base in Afghanistan, with Afghan police firing on some 2,000 protesters as they tried to break into the heavily guarded facility, Kabir Ahmed, the local government chief, was quoted as saying. Two demonstrators were killed and five were injured, while eight police were also hurt, he said. No US troops were involved in the clashes, the military said.

Afghan police also fired on protesters in the central city of Mihtarlam after a man in the crowd shot at them and others threw stones and knives. Two protesters were killed, and three other people were wounded, including two police, officials said. The demonstrators burned tires and threw stones at government offices.

On Tuesday, in the southern city of Kandahar, a suicide bomber attacked a guard post outside the police headquarters, killing 13 people and wounding 11, officials said. The incident comes ahead of a major offensive - including suicide attacks - planned by the Taliban this summer.

"It is a critical situation and is likely to have a special impact on Afghanistan," said a newly elected member of the Afghan parliament, Sibghatullah Zaki, speaking to Asia Times Online by telephone from Kabul.

Zaki was elected from northern Takhar province and is ethnically Uzbek. He is also a top leader of the Jumbesh Milli Afghanistan led by General Abdul Rasheed Dostum. "On the one hand, the West is trying to fight with terror, and on the other hand this sort of action promotes terrorism," Zaki said.

Zaki said that those who published the cartoons were playing with the sentiments of 1.4 billion Muslims. "Our religion teaches us tolerance, and all prophets before Mohammed have a status in Islam. We believe that before the end of time Essa [Jesus] will re-emerge and Muslims will be part of his army. On the other hand, publication of blasphemous caricatures creates suspicion that the West does not respect Islam.

"There are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world. The majority of them condemn terrorism. There are few who believe in terror tactics. However, publication of such caricatures shows that they consider all Muslims as terrorists," Zaki said.

"I tell you, this will have a direct impact on Afghanistan's socio-political situation. There are already riots from north to south. In my province, Takhar, people attacked the offices of the governor and the mayor and ransacked everything. There [were] a huge demonstration and riots in Laghman. This indicates the direction in which the common Afghan thinks," Zaki said.

In Karachi, in a unanimous decision by all trade bodies, Pakistan's financial hub was closed on Tuesday in protest against the cartoons. The president of the Federation of Pakistani Chambers of Commerce and Industries has called for a boycott of Danish products, as the cartoons first appeared in a Danish newspaper.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.
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