By JAMAL HALABY
Hundreds of protesting Islamic hard-liners clashed with supporters of Jordan’s king on Friday, wounding dozens, in the latest move by the extremist movement to assert itself amid the country’s wave of anti-government demonstrations.
A crowd of about 350 extremist Salafi Muslims faced off with a slightly smaller group of king loyalists in the town of Zarqa. Salafis beat the government supporters with clubs and fists, and the two sides hurled stones at each other, leaving people bloodied on the ground.
The Salafi movement – an ultraconservative version of Islam with an ideology similar to al-Qaida’s – is banned in Jordan, but it has grown in strength in recent years and Salafis have held a series of rallies in various parts of the country in recent weeks.
Their demonstrations are separate from the 14-week-old wave of anti-government protests by lefitsts and more moderate Islamists demanding democratic reforms in the Arab U.S. ally.
More than 2,000 Jordanians took to the streets throughout the country Friday to press their demands for a greater political voice. About half of them demonstrated outside Amman’s municipal building after Muslim prayers.
They held a huge Jordanian flag and chanted, “We sacrifice our blood and soul for Jordan. Reform the system now.”
Police separated them from a small group of government loyalists who shouted threats: “Those who fight us, beware! Our rocks will smash your heads.”
Unlike protests elsewhere in the region, Jordanians do not want their ruler, King Abdullah II, to step down. Activists are asking for some of his powers to be curbed.
The violence in Zarqa began when a crowd of Salafis rallied in front of the town’s Omar ibn Khattab Mosque, listening to speeches by Salafi leaders denouncing Jordan’s ties to the United States and calling for rule by Islamic Shariah law in Jordan. A crowd of government supporters gathered nearby to watch.
One of the government loyalists waved a framed portrait of Abdullah in the air and marched toward the Salafi crowd. The Salafis started to push him back, then beat him and he fell to the ground, his face bloodied. Other Salafis rushed to nearby cars, pulled out clubs and cables and attacked the rival group, an Associated Press reporter at the scene said.
Stone throwing and fistfights erupted, leaving many bloodied, until police intervened and convinced the government supporters to move farther away from the mosque.
Eighty-three policemen were wounded, including four who were stabbed by Salafis and are in critical condition, said police chief Lt. Gen. Hussein Majali.
He said the attacking Salafis were armed with barbed wire, swords, knives and clubs. The police were unarmed, he said, but used tear gas to disperse crowds. Officers arrested 17 Salafi protesters.
Zarqa, an industrial city north of the capital, Amman, is the birthplace of slain al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The pro-reform demonstrators in Jordan have been pressing for a series of changes to loosen the control of the king over the government, including popular elections for the prime minister, who is currently appointed by the king. Unlike in other Arab countries where protesters have sought the ouster of the leader, they have not demanded the removal of King Abdullah.
New laws on elections and political parties – key demands of the protesters – are expected to be presented to the government by month’s end, said Musa Barhouma, a national dialogue member, during the Amman demonstration.
“The road to reform is long,” said Muath Khawaldeh, spokesman for the youth movement demanding reform. “So far we have not seen serious steps taken by government. But this won’t stop us protesting until our demands are met,” he said.
The government has taken a relatively hands-off stance toward the protests, though some clashes have erupted in recent weeks. The Salafis have taken advantage of the lenient approach to hold rallies pressing their own agenda, including demands for the release of a 300 members of their movement serving prison terms for plotting al-Qaida-linked terror attacks in Jordan.
At the rally in Zarqa on Friday, one senior Salafi figure, Abed Shihadeh al-Tahawi, lashed out at the Jordanian government for its ties with the United States and for its crackdowns on the Salafis, as the crowd chanted, “down down with America, down down with democracy.”
“The Jordanian government has been chasing us everywhere for Americans’ sake. We’re not going anywhere. One day all the Arab world will be ours,” al-Tahawi said. “We will have Shariah law rule in Jordan. It’s only a matter of time, and all America and Israel’s efforts will go away.”
Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.