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Hardliners stage anti-US protests in Pakistan

Islamabad, Jan. 3 (Reuters): Thousands of angry Pakistanis protested today against the presence of US troops in the region, a possible attack on Iraq and what one banner called the “Holocaust of the Muslims.”

Demonstrators also burnt an effigy of US President George W. Bush in nationwide protests organised by the six-party Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) hardline Islamic coalition, which made huge gains in an October election by tapping anti-US sentiment. In the largest rallies, police looked on as around 2,000 people gathered in the central city of Multan, and similar numbers gathered in Lahore and in Quetta, near the Afghan border, where opposition to US action in Afghanistan is strongest.

“War will continue until Bush’s destruction,” the crowd shouted in Multan, located in the populous Punjab province. “Bush is thirsty for Muslims’ blood.”

In Peshawar, another hotbed of anti-US sentiment, protesters burnt an effigy of Bush and shouted: “No war on Iraq.”

In the capital Islamabad, 800 men crowded near the Lal Masjid. “Holocaust of the Muslims” read a banner there.

But the coalition could be disappointed at the turnout in an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 140 million people for what it hoped would be a major embarrassment for President Pervez Musharraf.

Islamic groups were infuriated when the general backed Washington in its fight against the Afghan Taliban regime, which was armed and trained by Pakistan.

The MMA, whose election successes gave it control of the North West Frontier Province and a share of power in Baluchistan, both bordering Afghanistan, counts pro-Taliban clerics among its leaders. Musharraf has said a strike against Iraq would have negative repercussions across the Muslim world.

A series of fatal attacks on Christian and Western targets in Pakistan last year was blamed on Islamic militants opposed to his pro-U.S. stance.

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