WASHINGTON—Washington is in a diplomatic race against Friday prayers, scrambling to contain a widening anti-American frenzy sparked by a low-budget video mocking the prophet Muhammad.
As protests against the inflammatory U.S.-made clip spread to at least nine countries Thursday, the orbit of rage turned deadly in Yemen, where at least four demonstrators were killed in clashes with security forces as they stormed the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa.
Dozens were injured in Cairo, where Egyptian police lined the outskirts of the U.S. Embassy, igniting tear gas to contain a third day of demonstrations. Intermittent clashes continued overnight as crowds built toward the weekly flashpoint of Friday prayers. The nearby Canadian Embassy was also ordered temporarily closed as a precaution.
Protests of varying sizes took place in Iran, Gaza, Oman, Sudan, Morocco, Bangladesh and Iraq, where hundreds of followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets, torching U.S. flags and demanding the closure of the embassy in Baghdad.
The tension, paradoxically, was least evident in Libya, where officials of the fledgling post-Gadhafi government claimed an initial four arrests in their probe of the fiery assault at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed four American personnel, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
FBI investigators were assigned to the probe in Benghazi, taking the lead role in unpacking the genesis of an attack that U.S. officials suspect was a long-planned strike timed for the anniversary of Sept. 11, rather than an act of spontaneous rage.
A top Libyan security official, meanwhile, said the attack came in two waves — a disorganized but angry demonstration by civilians and militants followed by a premeditated ambush by assailants armed with rocket-propelled grenades, the New York Times reported.
But as the demonstrations spread, the point may be moot. U.S. officials now are worried the protests will feed on themselves.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton moved to tamp down anger, denouncing the video as “disgusting and reprehensible.”
“It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage,” said Clinton.
But the film is no excuse for violence, she said, adding that even if it could be suppressed — doubtful given today’s technologies — American law guarantees citizens the right to express their views, “no matter how distasteful they may be.”
Clinton’s soft diplomacy came amid multiple signals of much tougher back chatter with Egypt, where the crisis is now testing America’s relationship with the post-Mubarak era.
Late Wednesday, President Barack Obama characterized the new Egypt as neither an ally nor an enemy. State Department officials later walked back the remark, but many in Washington are seething at the slow response of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned regime to fully safeguard the U.S. mission in Cairo.
The diplomatic snark spilled onto Twitter when the U.S. Embassy in Cairo answered a conciliatory English-language message from the Muslim Brotherhood by suggesting the organization was sending more aggressive, anti-American signals to its Arabic readers.
“Thanks,” the U.S. message said. “By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood has called for demonstrations throughout Egypt on Friday, though it is urging followers to avoid the U.S. Embassy and express their objections peacefully.
But just as the video itself was an act of manipulation, U.S. officials are on alert to the likelihood that the reaction will involve further manipulation, as Salafist groups seize upon and stoke the fury.
Those worries extend also to Egypt’s eight million Coptic Christians, who fear fallout from the revelation that the filmmaker behind the controversial video, who initially identified himself as an Israeli Jew, is in fact a Copt.
The filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was in hiding Thursday. But his dubious biography was unfurled by a ravenous U.S. press corps, with revelations of a long history of bank fraud involving more than a dozen assumed identities and a 21-month sentence in federal prison.
Wired.com, in its expose, wondered at the irony of “how U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century is at risk of being derailed by a single, pseudonymous fraudster.”
U.S. officials, meanwhile, identified the two remaining casualties from Tuesday’s strike in Benghazi as Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, former Navy SEAL commandos working as security officers. Ambassador Stevens, it was believed, was fatally injured in the first of a two-pronged assault on the compound.
The fourth casualty was Sean Smith, a computer expert formerly posted to U.S. missions in Montreal and Baghdad.