ZARQA, Jordan -- 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 pro-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 ultra-conservative 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 this Arab U.S. ally.
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 King Abdullah II 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 further away from the mosque.
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 reforms 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.
The government has taken a relatively hands-off stance toward the protests – though some clashes have erupted in recent weeks. The Salafis have taken advantance of the lenient apprach 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."