WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush condemned the deadly rioting sparked by cartoons of the prophet Muhammad yesterday, and his secretary of state accused Iran and Syria of trying “to inflame sentiments” across the Muslim world.

Angela Cesere
Pakistani Shiite Muslims burn U.S., Danish and Israeli flags to condemn the publication of controversial cartoons during a rally to mourn the death of their spiritual leader Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad, yesterday in Karachi, Pakistan (AP PH

Bush urged foreign leaders to halt the spreading violence and to protect diplomats in besieged embassies.

The president spoke out about the controversy for the first time, signaling deepening White House concern about violent protests stemming from the publication of caricatures in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and reprinted in European media and elsewhere in the past week.

“We reject violence as a way to express discontent with what may be printed in a free press,” the president said.

At the same time, Bush admonished the press that its freedom comes with”the responsibility to be thoughtful about others.”

Bush commented alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House. Abdullah, too, called for protests to be peaceful, but he also spoke against ridicule of Islam’s holiest figure.

“With all respect to press freedoms, obviously anything that vilifies the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, or attacks Muslim sensibilities, I believe, needs to be condemned,” the king said.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, police killed four people as protesters marched on a U.S. military base.

There was increasing talk, both in the U.S. and abroad, that some foreign governments as well as extremist groups were fanning the violent protests.

At the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes. And the world ought to call them on it.”

There is little doubt that there is genuine anger throughout the Muslim world, where images of the revered Prophet Muhammad with a bomb strapped to his head are considered racist and deeply insulting.

In the post-Sept. 11 world, Muslims already feel the brunt of the war on terror and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, said Diaa Rashwan, with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt.

“That only further fueled the anger this time around,” he said, the cartoons releasing bottled-up anger and frustration.

In Afghanistan, U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said, “Other countries are having the same demonstrations, same problems,” when he was asked if al-Qaida and the Taliban may have been involved.

And Zahor Afghan, editor of Erada, Afghanistan’s most respected newspaper, said that “there are definitely people using this to incite violence against the presence of foreigners in Afghanistan.”

On Tuesday, Bush had called Denmark’s prime minister to express “our support and solidarity” in the wake of the violence.

In the midst of a campaign to blunt widespread anti-American sentiment across the Mideast, Bush sought to balance his remarks by urging the media to be sensitive to religious beliefs.

“We believe in a free press,” the president said. “We also recognize that with freedom comes responsibilities. With freedom comes the responsibility to be thoughtful about others.”

Sitting alongside him, Jordan’s Abdullah said, “Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion of peace, tolerance, moderation.”

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