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Protest in Jordan turns violent

By the CNN Wire Staff
Protesters took the streets of Amman, Jordan, on Friday, calling for governmental and constitutional reforms.
Protesters took the streets of Amman, Jordan, on Friday, calling for governmental and constitutional reforms.
  • NEW: Several civilians and scores of police officers hurt in al-Zarqa
  • Hundreds march in Amman and other cities across Jordan
  • Protesters call for government, constitutional reforms
  • No violence reported during demonstrations in capital

Al-Zarqa, Jordan (CNN) -- Several civilians and scores of police officers were injured Friday when pro-monarchy supporters clashed with hard-line Islamic activists in this city a half hour northeast of the capital.

The confrontation between government loyalists with dozens of Salafi jihadists -- followers of a strict interpretation of Islam who advocate jihad -- brought a violent end to what had been a largely peaceful demonstration during which protesters demanded the release of 200 jihadists being held in Jordanian prisons.

The incident occurred as vehicles carrying Salafi activists came under a barrage of stones as they were leaving the city, the birthplace of former al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

As the clashes between stone-hurling loyalists and knife-wielding Salafis escalated, police fired tear gas to disperse them and traded a volley of stones with Salafi supporters, witnesses said.

After the incident, Jordanian public security department chief Hussein Majali told reporters that 83 police officers sustained injuries -- including knife wounds -- in what he described as a "premeditated attack" by the Salafis. Of the total, 32 officers suffered smoke inhalation due to misfired tear gas, he added.

Shiekh Saad Hneiti, a senior leader of the Jordanian Salafist movement, denied that there had been any premeditated attack, insisting that protesters picked up arms only in self-defense after coming under attack by pro-monarchy supporters.

"We were observing our right to peacefully express our opinions when we were attacked by plain-clothed security agents," Hneiti told CNN.

He added that two members and a senior leader of the movement were hospitalized with mild to severe injuries following the incident.

Hneiti vowed that Jordan's jihadists will continue to demonstrate in the streets until their demands are met.

"Our demands are pure and just and clear: we want our brothers freed from prison and to be governed by the Holy Quran, which most Jordanians support," Hneiti said. "You can attack us, you can imprison us, but you can't stop the will of the Muslim nation."

During Friday's two-hour demonstration, held at al-Zarqa's Omar bin Khatab Mosque, some 1,000 participants chanted slogans including "The people want Sharia law," "Down with America," and "No to democracy, no to racism, no to globalism, only Islam."

Salafi jihadists are among several groups taking advantage of newfound freedom in Jordan, holding demonstrations across the country over the past month, calling for the release of imprisoned jihadists, and for the implementation of Sharia law.

Unlike pro-democracy activists who have held weekly demonstrations across the Hashemite Kingdom since early January, Salafis reject calls for political reform as they view the Jordanian regime as "un-Islamic."

The scene in Amman was more peaceful. There, more than 1,000 people marched Friday demanding democratic and economic reforms, protesting corruption and calling for social justice and constitutional changes.

The protesters, from many political parties and opposition groups, took to the streets of the capital city demanding governmental and constitutional reforms and an end to what many call government corruption amid tight security from hundreds of police and security personnel.

Laila Naffa, 66, a leader of the Communist Party -- one of the main political parties demanding reform -- said that, amid ongoing revolutions across the Arab world, Jordanians too want change.

"Today with the revolutions sweeping the Arab world, Jordanians are taking to the street asking for the same slogans, freedom, social justice, because after the signing of the Wadi Araba Treaty with Israel, things have been deteriorating," Naffa said. The 1994 treaty normalized relations between the two countries.

"Now we are asking to reform the system, freedom rights for legalizing political parties and for getting rid of the current political parties law, calling (for) and demanding free elections under the auspices of the judiciary control, reform of the constitution. ... This should be done through national dialogue and by the king to assure this will be implemented," she added.

Local media reported similar protests Friday in other cities, including Karak in the south and Irbid in the north.

Jordanians have held regular protests since January. Most of them, unlike demonstrators in Arab countries that have seen uprisings, have not been seeking regime change but changes to the regime.

In February, King Abdullah II sacked his prime minister and cabinet and instituted a number of economic measures and promises of political reform in an effort to appease those demands. But the protesters' list of demands grew longer as many Jordanians felt emboldened by the popular uprisings in the region.

Although the protests in Amman have been largely peaceful, more than 100 people were injured and one person died last month when pro-government loyalists attacked anti government protesters with sticks and stones. A CNN team at the protest reported that police forces used water cannon and batons to disperse a sit-in in a main Amman square.

Mohamad Khateeb, a spokesman for the public security directorate, said Friday's demonstrations in Amman were peaceful.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and Kareem Khadder and Journalist Taylor Luck contributed to this story.

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