Afghan protesters burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration against the burning… (European Pressphoto Agency )
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — The burning of the Muslim holy book by a Florida church last week went largely unnoticed in the U.S. But it enraged a mob that stormed U.N. offices in a normally placid area of Afghanistan, an outbreak of violence that also signaled broadening anti-American sentiment and the difficulty of handing security responsibility back to Afghans.
Worshipers attacked U.N. headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif after a sermon during Friday prayers that denounced the burning of the Koran last month after a mock trial organized by the Dove World Outreach Center. The pastor of the small fringe congregation received worldwide publicity last fall when he announced he was going to burn a copy of the book, but later said he changed his mind.
The crowd overpowered and killed guards who tried to fight them off, set parts of the U.N. compound ablaze and hunted down workers trapped inside, according to Afghan police.
The marchers, some of them carrying weapons, shouted "Death to infidels!" as they approached the compound, one of the most visible signs of the Western presence in the northern Afghan city.
U.N. officials said seven foreigners — four guards and three other U.N. staff — were killed. Afghan officials said the four guards were Nepalese. Officials in both Sweden and Norway said one of their citizens was killed, and reports said the seventh foreigner slain was from Romania.
Friday's violence was the deadliest against United Nations staff in Afghanistan since October 2009, when gunmen and bombers stormed a guesthouse in the capital, killing five foreign U.N. workers and two Afghan guards. That prompted the world body to order the relocation of hundreds of expatriate employees.
A year later, in October 2010, the main U.N. compound in the western city of Herat came under attack by a squad of suicide bombers and gunmen, some of them disguised as either police officers or women, but the Nepalese guards managed to repel them, and the four assailants were the only fatalities.
In part because of the relative calm in recent years, Mazar-i-Sharif was designated last month by President Hamid Karzai as among the first major cities in which Afghan forces would take the lead in providing security. That process, to be expanded to other parts of the country by 2014, is a cornerstone of the strategy for U.S. and other Western forces to eventually pull out of Afghanistan.
After taking office, President Obama increased U.S. troop levels twice in an effort to stop a resurgence by the Taliban. They now make up about two-thirds of the 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. U.S. military officials say they will start withdrawing some forces in less than four months.
They claim they have stopped the Taliban's progress, in part by targeting mid-level commanders in pinpoint raids and pushing insurgents out of key districts in the south. But they acknowledge that it will become clearer how much progress they've made in spring, when fighting typically picks up.
Obama condemned the attack in Mazar-i-Sharif. He offered condolences and called for calm.
"The brave men and women of the United Nations, including the Afghan staff, undertake their work in support of the Afghan people," he said. "Their work is essential to building a stronger Afghanistan for the benefit of all its citizens."
In an email statement, Florida pastor Terry Jones did not say why he had changed his mind about burning the Koran. Church-affiliated websites said the Muslim holy book was accused of "inciting murder, rape, and terrorist activities" and subjected to a six-hour mock trial March 20, after which it was soaked in kerosene and burned.
A blog post by JoBeth Gerrard, 53-year-old unemployed accountant and member of the jury, said the mock trial was attended by about 50 people and included testimony from "expert witnesses" who included two former Muslims who had converted to Christianity, an Egyptian Christian and a woman who had been married to a Muslim who allegedly beat her.
In a telephone interview Friday, she said she was not particularly concerned that the book burning had incited violence. "Well, no," she said, "because I keep up with what's going on and I know that [Muslims] are constantly killing people, burning churches and killing Christians. Whether some guy in the U.S. burns a Koran or not, it doesn't make a difference."
She said she first heard of Jones' Gainesville, Fla., church when she heard him speak on conservative Sean Hannity's radio show.
The violence began Friday when a crowd poured out of Mazar-i-Sharif's landmark Blue Mosque after an incendiary sermon at noon prayers, the most important religious occasion of the Muslim week.
Similar sermons set off angry demonstrations in Kabul and Herat, but neither of those boiled over into large-scale violence.