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Anti-Cartoon Protests Fuel Domestic Political Unrest in Pakistan


Fresh protests have erupted across Pakistan against the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and authorities have detained dozens of Islamic activists in an attempt to control the demonstrations. The government is accusing opposition parties of using the outrage over the caricatures for domestic political gains.

For the second time in a week, Pakistani security forces on Friday rounded up dozens of activists and Islamic religious leaders before nationwide demonstrations against the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad got under way.

Previous protests have turned violent, resulting in at least five deaths and dozens of injuries. Officials say damage to property runs into millions of dollars.

The Pakistani government has banned the protests in several major cities, and accused opposition groups of using the demonstrations to push their political agendas.

But analysts in Pakistan say it is the government that appears out of step with the public mood. Independent political analyst Ayaz Amir says the government could lose control of the debate, if it does not address public concerns. "[The cartoon controversy] has struck a chord of public anger," he said. "The spark was provided by the cartoons, but it's already political, and the target now is the government."

The protests were initially led by hard-line Islamic groups, which oppose Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's support for U.S. policies, including its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, mainstream opposition groups are now throwing their weight behind the demonstrations.

The opposition parties are united in demanding widespread democratic reforms, including fresh elections, following General Musharraf's seizure of power in a military takeover in 1999.

Faratullah Babar is a spokesman for the progressive Pakistan People's Party, headed by self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a long-time critic of Pakistan's current government. "The government has never been sincere in articulating public opinion on this issue," said Babar. "The government has no credentials to be speaking on behalf of the people of Pakistan."

Opposition leaders Thursday rejected a government plan to send a parliamentary delegation to Brussels to discuss the cartoon controversy with European Union leaders.

More rallies are scheduled, including a nationwide strike on March 3, which coincides with the arrival of President Bush in Pakistan for a state visit.