KABUL, Afghanistan - Abdul Saboor is a small, quiet man with the wispy mustache of a teenager. He wears a tan V-neck sweater and clutches his geology books tightly to his chest. But last week, the Kabul University engineering student joined anti-U.S. protests and dreamed of "doing whatever I could to an American."
He was one of hundreds who marched through the streets in the Afghan capital after hearing reports that a U.S. investigation had confirmed desecration of the Quran by interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Newsweek magazine has since retracted the story, but this matters little to Afghans such as Saboor. They do not believe any retraction, and they want the U.S. government to apologize. Some want more.
"We don't need the Americans," Saboor said. "They should get out."
Such a sentiment is rarely expressed in Afghanistan, where many still welcome U.S. troops. In the 3 1/2 years since the Taliban's fall, there had never been a major anti-U.S. demonstration in Afghanistan - until last week.
For five days, demonstrations spread from one Afghan city to another, fueled by students and clerics. At least 15 people were killed in clashes.
By Saturday, the protests had spread to Pakistan, and governments across the Islamic world were demanding an investigation at Guantanamo.
In the calm of this week, Afghans are reflecting on what led to the protests. Many believe that people were only reacting to reports about the defamation of the Quran. Others believe people frustrated with the lack of progress in Afghanistan were willing to protest for any reason. Still others believe outside forces were at work, manipulating the emotions of Afghans to destabilize the government.
"There are some people, both insiders and outsiders, who were involved," said Chief Justice Fazil Hadi Shinwari, also an Islamic scholar. "We are a poor country. We don't know exactly who they are."
For some Afghans, the extent of the protests was shocking. After 23 years of war and 3 1/2 years of relative peace, they worried that any violence could lead to more instability.
"I was really afraid, and I was really surprised," said Sayed Mohammad, 34, who sells T-shirts at a street stand in downtown Kabul. "I thought misery would again come to Afghanistan."
Newsweek's retraction did little to quell anger. Many Afghans said they believe the magazine was pressured to pull its report by the U.S. government and do not doubt the authenticity of the story: that interrogators in Guantanamo Bay tried to demoralize detainees by placing Islam's holiest book on toilets and trying to flush one of them.
"I'm sure they have done this," said Mohammad Moqim Badakhsh, 23, a literature student who joined the demonstrations. "I'm sure they have put our Holy Quran in the toilet."
The Quran, which Muslims consider the word of God, is not supposed to touch the floor and is often kissed when opened. In several Islamic countries, including Afghanistan, its desecration is punishable by death.
Afghans say they believe the toilet allegation is true because it fits into a pattern of other abuses, such as the deaths of detainees in Afghanistan and the humiliation of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison.
Younas Haleem, 25, an engineering student at Kabul University, said he had talked to some former Guantanamo detainees who complained about abuse of the Quran.
"The most important thing for us is our religion," Haleem said. "More than ourselves, more than our lives."
Some Afghans wonder whether the protests could be the tipping point in relations with the United States. The U.S. government has not yet worn out its welcome, but the welcome mat is starting to show its age.
"They should have done more than they have in the past three years," said Sohrab, 25, a Kabul University journalism student who like many Afghans uses only one name. "They are now trying to put their foot in the door. They're creating a way to stay forever."
Many Afghans still support the U.S. troops. Several men who protested last week said they believed the U.S. presence is necessary for national security. "Up until the time they are needed, they should stay," said Ahmad Jawed, 19, a literature student. "But then they should go."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.