By Matthias Gebauer and Shoib Najafizada in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has strongly warned against the planned burning of Korans in Florida on Sept. 11.
"This action assaults Islam in general and all Muslims in Afghanistan," a spokesman for Karzai told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He called on Washington to prevent the event from happening and warned that the consequences could be grave if Islamophobic preacher Terry Jones moves ahead with his plan.
"If the US government lets this happen it endangers not only the relationship with Afghanistan, but also with the whole Muslim world," said Karzai's deputy spokesman, Siamac Herawi.
On Wednesday, US General David Petraeus, the commander of NATO's ISAF forces, met with Karzai and discussed the explosive issue. A day earlier, Petraeus had taken the unusual step of warning of the consequences that Jones' action could have. "Images of the burning of the Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan -- and around the world -- to inflame public opinion and incite violence," the general wrote in a statement.
'Problems for Our Afghan Partners'
After the meeting in the Presidential Palace in Kabul, NATO headquarters issued a statement that Petraeus and Karzai were both concerned about the planned Sept. 11 action. Both agreed that the possible response to the action would "undermine our effort in Afghanistan, jeopardize the safety of coalition troops and civilians."
In an email to SPIEGEL ONLINE, a spokesman for US General Petraeus also said the action could "create problems for our Afghan partners" because "it likely would be Afghan police and soldiers who would have to deal with any large demonstrations."
Wednesday's meeting underscores how seriously the NATO troops are taking the issue. Past instances where the Koran or Islam were denigrated have triggered protests in Afghanistan, some of which resulted in massive outbreaks of violence.
In 2006, during the global outrage over Muhammad caricatures published in a Danish newspaper, protesters took to the streets in Kabul and went on a rampage at the Norwegian Embassy. Aggressive protesters even dared to attack a military base of the Norwegians, who were part of the ISAF security force. The attacks only ceased after US fighter jets fired warning shots.
'I Can Only Wish that This Affair Doesn't Happen'
The German regional commander, Brigadier General Hans-Werner Fritz, warned in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE on Wednesday that if the Koran burnings do take place on Saturday at the evangelical church in Florida, one must fear that attacks could be perpetrated against American soldiers, US facilities and also against all NATO troops. "I can only wish that this affair doesn't happen," he said, "because it would give an incited people and radicals cause to commit violence against all ISAF troops, including the Germans in northern Afghanistan."
The signs of what could happen were already apparent at a small protest held on Tuesday in Kabul, where demonstrators threw stones at a convoy of American soldiers and chanted "Death to the USA." Organizers at another protest in front of a mosque, however, were able to prevent an outbreak of violence. But Western observers fear that such control would hardly be manageable at mass demonstrations.
In his warning, Petraeus said that images of the burning of the Koran could be used by extremists and would have a similar impact to the images of torture committed by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
In 2005, massive protests broke out in Afghanistan after Newsweek reported that the US military officers had flushed copies of the Koran down the toilet in front of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo. Fifteen people died in the mass protests in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Taliban Propaganda against Foreign Troops
Western armies and the United Nations fear that similar protests could erupt should the Koran burnings go ahead. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's notorious spokesman, warned by phone on Wednesday from an undisclosed location, that the plans to burn the Koran fit in with a pattern of hostility towards Islam by the foreign troops.
"This is not the first time that foreigners have defiled the Koran," Mujahid said. "The Western troops are only here to damage Islam and to oppress all Muslims."
Even if the statements made by the Taliban spokesman are pure propaganda, similar incitement in Afghan mosques could trigger the feared mass protests. Indeed, observers are already concerned that sentiments could be stirred up during Friday prayers, leading to protests or violence in the run-up to Saturday's planned event. If that happened, Afghanistan's burgeoning police force would be hopelessly overstrained, and ISAF troops would be put in danger if forced to intervene.
The statements from the Presidential Palace also make clear how President Karzai will react if worse comes to worst. In recent months, Karzai has resorted to anti-Western sentiment for his own purposes again and again. The fact that he is now placing indirect responsibility for the Koran burnings on the government of US President Barack Obama leads one to suspect that he may be leaving the door open for similar sentiment against Washington again.
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