Authorities backed Damascus riots, say protesters

Syrian protesters who burnt and looted the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus at the weekend were encouraged to organise by the Syrian authorities, and received text messages from Islamic study centres urging them to gather, according to participants in the riot.

"The sheikhs told us to send five text messages to every true Muslim we knew urging them to participate," said a student from the conservative Abu Nour Islamic Institute in Damascus, who wished to remain anonymous. "The authorities gave a green light for us to organise the gathering in public and to participate in it."

The Middle East has for months been a tinderbox of pent-up anti-Western anger, and the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed was the spark that lit the fuse. But the fury displayed by crowds in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq may also have been exploited by some Muslim countries to settle scores with Western powers. Syria and Iran face growing pressure from the US and Europe on the issues of Iraq and on Tehran's nuclear programme. And Egypt, one of the first to publicly criticise the cartoons, has been critical of the Danish government for funding critics of human rights abuses.

"This is an organised attempt to take advantage of Muslim anger for purposes that do not serve the interests of Muslims and Lebanon, but those of others beyond the border," Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad, a Christian, said yesterday after riots in Beirut.

Wael Bawabigy, a young Damascus trader, who took part in Saturday's violent demonstration, which the White House said could not have happened "without government knowledge and support", said security forces armed with tear gas and rubber bullets were taken by surprise.

Iraq's Transport Ministry has frozen contracts with Denmark and Norway in protest.

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