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Originally published Sunday, April 3, 2011 at 8:39 PM

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Taliban uses burned Quran as weapon

One clear beneficiary — the Taliban — has emerged from the wave of deadly riots that swept Afghanistan after members of a Florida evangelical church burned a copy of the Quran.

Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — One clear beneficiary has emerged from the wave of deadly riots that swept Afghanistan after members of a Florida evangelical church burned a copy of the Quran: the Taliban.

The insurgents, according to Afghan and Western officials, have exploited the ongoing tumult, using the riots as cover for attacks against Western and government targets and reaping propaganda benefits by allying themselves with popular fury over the desecration of the Muslim holy book.

Moreover, the violence has fueled tensions among NATO allies, Western diplomats say, sparked as it was by an American figure, albeit a fringe one. The riots have tapped a well of anti-foreign and particularly anti-American sentiment that exists even among Afghans who do not condone the deaths that have occurred.

Afghans took to the streets Sunday for a third consecutive day, in Jalalabad and Kandahar, to protest the March 20 burning of a copy of the Quran by followers of Terry Jones, a pastor based in Gainesville, Fla. Officials in Kandahar reported at least two more deaths and dozens of injuries; the Jalalabad protest, though angry and impassioned, largely was peaceful.

The latest fatalities brought the three-day death toll to 22, including seven U.N. workers and four demonstrators killed Friday when rioters stormed their compound in Mazar-e-Sharif after mosque preachers inveighed against the Quran burning, and at least nine people killed in daylong rioting Saturday in Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban movement.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose comments about the Quran burning brought it to the attention of many Afghans, raised the issue again in a statement Sunday. He said he discussed the issue with U.S. officials and reiterated that "those people who are responsible for burning the holy Quran should be arrested soon."

The Taliban said in a statement that the United States and other Western countries had wrongly excused the burning of the Quran as freedom of speech and that Afghans "cannot accept this un-Islamic act."

"Afghan forces under the order of the foreign forces attacked unarmed people during the protests, killing them and arresting some, saying there were armed people among these protesters, which was not true," the Taliban said.

Both Afghan and Western officials cited mounting evidence that insurgents had seized the opportunity to infiltrate crowds of demonstrators in both Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif, concealing themselves among those who otherwise might have marched relatively peacefully.

The protests also appear to be fueled more broadly by resentment that has been building for years in Afghanistan over the operations of Western military forces, blamed for killing and mistreating civilians, and international contractors, seen by many as enriching themselves and fueling corruption at the expense of ordinary Afghans.

Coverage of the trial of a group of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers charged with killing Afghan civilians and the publication of photos of some posing with dead bodies added to the anger.

Even sophisticated urban Afghans were baffled that what they considered an overt act of blasphemy could be considered a permissible expression of political opinion.

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The White House, meanwhile, may have inflamed tensions unwittingly with an indirect reference to beheading in retribution for religious insult — a highly fraught topic because decapitations sometimes are associated with Islamic extremism.

"The desecration of any holy text, including the Quran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry," Obama said in a statement Saturday. "No religion tolerates the slaughter and beheading of innocent people, and there is no justification for such a dishonest and deplorable act."

The United Nations denied any beheadings occurred during the assault on the compound in Mazar-e-Sharif. An early assertion by one Afghan police official that at least two of the foreigners killed had been decapitated was disseminated widely before being denied by others more familiar with events.

The leader of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, said in Kabul on Saturday that all seven victims, including the four guards, had gunshot wounds.

De Mistura said the three Europeans who died in the Mazar-e-Sharif compound were not victims of random mob violence but were hunted down in a bunker where they hid. Afghan officials, who have made dozens of arrests in connection with the assault, said evidence suggested the main instigators were allied with the insurgency.

U.N. officials have asserted repeatedly that the world body's compound in Mazar-e-Sharif presented a target of convenience.

"The demonstration did not attack the American consulate ... because the American consulate has not been opened yet, and it was diverted instead toward the U.N. building," de Mistura said.

Senior Western officials in Afghanistan have been urgently seeking Karzai's assistance in calming passions. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, together with Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, and Mark Sedwill, the senior NATO civilian representative, met with Karzai, the president's office said Sunday.

Petraeus and Sedwill said they "hope the Afghan people understand that the actions of a small number of individuals who have been extremely disrespectful to the holy Quran are not representative of any of the countries of the international community who are in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people."

The governor of Kandahar said he and the main leaders of the protests in the southern city had reached an agreement that would end the demonstrations in exchange for the release of those who were arrested. He said they released 25 people.

Information from The Associated Press and The Washington Post

is included in this report.

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