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Latest Cartoon Protests May Have Political Dimension


Protests by angry Muslims over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a terrorist took a decidedly violent turn in the past few days, with street battles in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and the burning of the Danish and Norwegian embassies in the Syrian capital.

Angry demonstrators have turned out by the thousands across the Middle East to protest cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in European newspapers, cartoons they consider blasphemous and an insult to their religion.

The outrage expressed by many Muslims is understandable, says Syrian political analyst Ayman Abdel Nour.

"I can understand anger," he said. "I can understand they want to show their feeling and their condemnation for this cartoon. They can go into a peaceful demonstration. But, I cannot understand at all what happened in Damascus."

The official Syrian news agency, SANAA, quoted a Foreign Ministry official expressing regret over the acts of violence and damage caused to some embassies in Damascus.

Police at the scene of the rioting Saturday night said they were outnumbered by the crowds and could do little to intervene. But some in Syria question how protests could have gotten so out of control, in a country with such a pervasive internal security police and where such things do not happen without a nod of approval from the leadership.

Some officials in Lebanon were quick to blame Syria for involvement in the anti-Western riots in Beirut on Sunday, although they offered no evidence to back up their claims.

But some analysts say the Syrian government could benefit from such rioting. First, they say, it diverts attention away from Western pressure on Damascus for its authoritarian rule, alleged support for terrorism and meddling in neighboring Lebanon.

Syrian political analyst Marwan Kabalan, of the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University, also sees a message there for the West: "The message is saying to the world -- look, our people are so much attached to Islam and our people are so frustrated and angry at your policies, so any replacement for us will be those people. Can you deal with them?," the analyst said.

There is a widespread sense that the anger expressed in the streets of Arab capitals goes well beyond protests over cartoons and also expresses a general feeling of a lack of respect by the West for Muslims, their religion and their concerns.

After the violent protests in Damascus and Beirut, religious leaders have called for calm and the Islamic Conference Organization has condemned the violence, saying it only damages legitimate Muslim concerns.

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