In several Arab cities, anti-war demonstrations turn violent

But elsewhere protests appear to lose steam as Iraq conflict continues

War In Iraq

March 22, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CAIRO, Egypt - Demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq roiled cities around the world yesterday, with riot police in several Arab nations turning water cannons, tear gas, batons and finally bullets on unruly protesters who surged by the thousands into the streets after Friday prayers.

But the reaction in some countries was more muted than expected. In Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, and across Southeastern Asia, rallies against the war drew fewer people than expected. Islamic religious leaders in Indonesia said 100,000 followers would march in Jakarta, but no more than a few thousand did so.

Angry demonstrations, ranging in size from hundreds to thousands, were held in several Pakistani cities yesterday to protest the attacks on Iraq. But a call by hard-line Islamic groups for a nationwide strike fizzled and stores generally remained open as normal. The Islamic parties have called for a major demonstration tomorrow in the city of Lahore.

The worst violence was in Yemen, where about 4,000 people tried to march from the ancient city center to the U.S. Embassy on the outskirts of San`a. The embassy building is set back from a highway behind barricades and concrete blocks.

The government said the protesters opened fire on riot police, setting off a gunbattle that killed two demonstrators, one of them an 11-year-old boy, and left three police officers hospitalized in critical condition.

At al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, the country's leading cleric, Sheik Mohammed Tantawi, had barely finished his sermon with a prayer for the victory of the Iraqi people, when shouts of "Save Iraq" rang out from mass of worshipers.

Riot police beat back protesters trying to leave the mosque, as other demonstrators climbed to a parapet on the building and threw down stones.

Protesters also scuffled with police in Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Even in Bahrain, the tiny gulf nation that provides the base for the Navy's 5th Fleet, 300 anti-American demonstrators gathered in front of the fortress-like U.S. Embassy and hurled stones.

Bush administration officials have talked of a period of reform and modernization for the people of the Middle East once the government of Saddam Hussein is dismantled.

They have suggested that, with the assistance of the United States, a new Iraq will arise from the ruins of Hussein's despotic rule and stir democratic reform across the region.

But that vision has generally failed to move the Arab public, although dissatisfaction with the autocratic regimes of the region is widespread. The United States' motives for the war in Iraq are viewed with suspicion.

Anti-war marchers also filled the streets of many European cities, although generally in smaller numbers than on the first day of U.S. and British strikes on Iraq.

In Madrid yesterday, several hundred people planted white crosses in a square opposite the Parliament and called for the resignation of Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, who has been one of President Bush's strongest backers on the war. In London, where some analysts said anti-war fervor appeared to lose steam once British forces were engaged in battle, bicyclists protesting the war blocked the square in front of the House of Commons.

While the anti-war sentiment is shared between Europe and the Arab world, its roots appear to be different.

European commentators and politicians tend to criticize the United States and Britain for acting on their own, jeopardizing the credibility of established international institutions and the rule of international law.

In contrast, Arab anger tends to focus on what is seen as U.S. bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on perceived U.S. hypocrisy in backing some repressive Arab regimes while going to war to dislodge Hussein. The belief is also widespread that America's main interest is to plunder the resources of the Arab world, chiefly oil.

"The political, cultural and social point of reference that America has been, is now eclipsed in the eyes of billions of people," Der Tagesspiegel, the Berlin daily, wrote yesterday. "The overwhelming impression: an imperial power is doing what it wants, regardless of its friends and its foes."

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