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Rumor sparks anti-American protests

A Koran-burning incident in Afghanistan prompts demonstrations in Kabul.

Afghans shout slogans during a protest in front of the parliament building in Kabul, Oct. 25, 2009. Afghan police fired into the air on Sunday to break up a protest against what protesters said was the desecration of a copy of the Koran by foreign troops. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters))

KABUL, Afghanistan — Shouting “Down with America!” and “Death to the infidels!” hundreds of protesters made their way from Kabul University, on the western outskirts of the capital, to the center of the city on Sunday.

They were reacting to rumors, vigorously denied by the U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, that American troops had burned several copies of the Koran in a province close to Kabul.

Police tried to contain the demonstrators by the university, but as their ranks swelled with students from the nearby Polytechnic and the Education University, the police relaxed their cordon and the crowds entered the city. A separate group gathered near the parliament.

By noon the worst of it was over, with no casualties reported, although the police fired warning shots in the air at some locations. But the demonstrations were just the latest in a series of protests that have swept Afghanistan since rumors of a Koran-burning incident in Wardak province began to circulate over a week ago. At least two people have been killed and several injured in the earlier protests, and there are few signs that the rage is dying down.

This could be very bad news for the new policy introduced by commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

McChrystal has insisted that the protection of the Afghan population should be paramount for the troops under his command. Winning hearts and minds, rather than killing or capturing Taliban, would be the first priority, he has repeatedly said.

But judging by the recent waves of protests, this will be a hard sell in a country where security is deteriorating daily, and where the local population often feels caught between a brutal insurgency and an equally unpalatable occupation. Anti-American sentiment runs deep here, and requires just a small spark to ignite.

The latest violence was prompted by rumors that U.S. soldiers had burned several copies of the Holy Koran in retaliation for an attack by insurgents. The U.S. forces reject the accusations and hint that the Taliban themselves perpetrated the offense to use as a propaganda ploy.

The Wardak province governor’s spokesman defends the foreign troops and points the finger at local drug addicts. But despite efforts to defuse the situation, university students and local residents in at least five provinces so far have taken to the streets to protest against the perceived insult to their culture and their religion.

The trouble began on Oct. 15, when U.S. forces were out on patrol in Wardak, a province just 25 miles from Kabul.