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Default In Kabul, Afghan police sympathize with protesters angry over Koran burning - 02-23-2012, 05:10 PM

In Kabul, Afghan police sympathize with protesters angry over Koran burning
By Kevin Sieff, Updated: Thursday, February*23, 3:40*PM

KABUL — The police officers had been told to be vigilant. They had been warned that protests could occur spontaneously and could again turn deadly, as they had for two days after U.S. military officials burned a pile of Korans.

But some of those same Afghan police officers showed few qualms on Thursday in telling a foreign reporter that their mission left them deeply uneasy. What their government was asking, they said, was for Afghan police officers to quell protesters whose cause they fully shared.

“Afghans and the world’s Muslims should rise against the foreigners. We have no patience left,” said one police officer in central Kabul, who has worked at the same checkpoint since he joined the force seven months ago. He looked at his colleague who stood next to him, nodding. “We both will attack the foreign military people.”

In the wake of the Koran burning at the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, it has been Afghan civilians, not insurgents, who have taken the lead through three days of demonstrations and riots. And while uniformed Afghan officers have sought to keep the peace, conversations with police at four posts in Kabul left little doubt that the popular resentment extends to those in positions of authority.

The police officers would discuss their sentiments only on the condition of anonymity, saying they would risk their livelihoods if they were to sympathize publicly with those fomenting violence. But their comments, in five separate interviews, suggested that the most devastating impact of the military’s mishandling of the Korans may be taking shape not in the form of a further empowered Taliban, but in disgruntlement among a crucial population of workaday Afghans, including some who man security checkpoints near Western installations.

“Those behind the act should be asked about their deed and must be punished,” said an officer near a U.S. military base in Kabul. “If I find the opportunity, I would shoot them in the head.”

By midday, two American soldiers in eastern Afghanistan had been shot dead by a man wearing an Afghan army uniform, the latest in a series of attacks this year within a nominally allied U.S.-Afghan force. U.S. officials have attributed the attacks variously to personal disputes or Taliban infiltration.

At the same time Thursday, the Taliban issued a statement encouraging Afghan security officials to take up arms against Western forces. At least three demonstrators were killed during the day, bringing the week’s death toll to 10, as some police were ordered to fire on protesters.

In a bid to ease tensions, President Obama took the unusual step of extending a personal apology for the incident, conveyed in a letter to President Hamid Karzai. But the U.S. Embassy remained on lockdown for a second day and extended its travel restrictions to a typically peaceful part of northern Afghanistan.

In a meeting with Karzai ahead of Friday prayers, some members of the Afghan parliament demanded harsh retribution, while religious officials spoke of jihad and the urgent need to respond with violence.

On the streets of Kabul, police officers said they didn’t care about the flurry of American apologies, including the one Thursday from Obama, or the demands of Afghan politicians. The offense was personal, most said, not diminished by contrition or inflamed by hostile rhetoric.

“It is difficult sometimes to convince people not to resort to protest,” said Qaseem Jangalbagh, the police chief of Panjshir. Asked whether that included his own officers, he said, “It is a problem.”

Junior officers spoke more bluntly, saying they would shirk their duties rather than quash demonstrations and referring often to their own violent impulses.

“We should burn those foreigners,” said a police officer in his early 30s who has been in the force for almost 2 1 / 2 years. Like most of the country's security officials, he was trained by NATO soldiers.

Police officers weren’t the only Afghans assumed to be American allies who spoke of mounting friction. The first early morning protests on Tuesday were led by Afghan employees of the Bagram air base, where the religious materials were burned accidentally, according to public statements from NATO military officials.

Bagram employees — who often face threats for aiding the United States — waved the charred books in the air, demanding a response.

Those employees, among the 5,000 Afghans who support the base’s operations, chanted “Death to America” and lobbed rocks at gates some had entered for years. Some cursed their bosses and promised never to return to work at Bagram.

“How could we ever work for someone who could do this?” asked a 21-year-old man who said he had worked for two years in a warehouse on the base. “This couldn’t have happened by accident. This was meant to offend us.”

Taliban officials, who are in the middle of tenuous peace talks with the United States, had initially condemned the burning but stopped short of advocating violence — an uncharacteristically muted response. But in the written statement released Thursday, the insurgent group took a tougher stance.

The statement described the burning as a “deliberate” act, despite repeated statements by top U.S. officials that the books were sent to the incinerator by mistake. It said Afghans and Muslims should not be placated by the U.S. apologies and declared that protests and “mere slogans” were not enough of a response.

“For the defense of our holy book, we . . . must target the invaders’ military centers, their military convoys and their invading forces . . . so that they can never dare to desecrate the holy Koran again,” the statement said.

There was no way to know whether Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. soldiers was orchestrated by the Taliban or was a response to the group’s call for revenge. The attack occurred in eastern Afghanistan. Few details were released.

Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.
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