AMMAN, Jordan — Calls for the ouster of Jordan's King Abdullah II grew Friday, as thousands of protesters packed the streets of the capital and demonstrations resumed elsewhere.
Larger groups have demonstrated in Amman since the unrest sparked by fuel price hikes started three days ago, but Friday's march constituted the biggest single bloc yet to call for the end of the U.S.-backed monarch's regime. The crowd of some 2,500 also chanted slogans reminiscent of last year's uprisings in the region.
Jordan, a key U.S. ally, has so far weathered nearly two years of Arab unrest that has seen longtime rulers toppled in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. Its own street protests calling for political reforms have largely been peaceful and rarely targeted Abdullah himself.
Protests across the country turned unusually violent earlier this week, with one person killed and 75 others, including 58 policemen, injured. Overall turnout on Friday was smaller than in past days, however, in Amman and elsewhere, with crowds varying from about 150 people in the southern town of Tafila to 3,000 in the northern city of Irbid.
The protesters, frustrated over the sharp increase in fuel and gas prices, were led by a hodgepodge of activists that included the largely secular Hirak youth movement, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, and various nationalist and left-wing groups. Jordan is plagued by poverty, unemployment and high inflation.
"I already can barely feed my 4 children with my monthly wage of $500, how can I afford this price increase?" asked Thaer Mashaqbeh, 47, a civil servant protesting in central Amman, as the crowd chanted: "The people want to topple the regime," and "Abdullah, you either reform or you go."
The government has defended the price increases, saying they were necessary to reduce a massive budget deficit and foreign debt – part of Jordan's efforts to secure a badly needed $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the kingdom's shaky finances.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the fuel price hikes are "necessary" to address Jordan's fiscal challenges and the terms of its IMF agreement. "There is always some pain that comes with these things," she told reporters. "But it's a necessary pain in this case."
Nuland stressed that Jordan's case differs from other Arab countries that have seen governments toppled by popular discontent over the last two years. "The tactical situation is considerably different," she said.
Similar sentiments were echoed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a telephone call with Abdullah about the protests. A spokeswoman said she commended Jordan's government for trying to address the country's economic challenges, and showing a commitment to reform.
Despite the appearance of counter protesters, Jordanian authorities reported no clashes in the 10 demonstrations that took place across the country on Friday. Police and independent observers say some 7,000 people took to the street nationwide, compared with 12,000 on Tuesday.
Thousands of the pro-government loyalists had taken to the streets nationwide to support the king, waving batons and threatening his critics. "Abdullah is our king and God is our witness," some chanted.
Some 2,000 Palestinian refugees living in squalid settlements protested the price hike for a second consecutive day. Some in the three settlements – two of which are in the capital – threw stones at police, prompting volleys of tear gas.
The unrest in Jordan began late on Tuesday after the government raised prices for cooking and heating gas by 54 percent and some oil derivatives by up to 28 percent. In response, thousands of Jordanians poured into the streets, pelting riot police with stones and torching police cars, government offices and private banks in the largest and most sustained protests to hit the country since the start of the region's uprisings nearly two years ago.
Police say "outlaws" with criminal records took advantage of the disorder to rob banks and homes, attack police stations, courts and other government buildings and carry out carjackings. At least 157 people have been arrested since Tuesday.
Jordan has been hit by frequent, but small, anti-government protests over the past 23 months, but this week's demonstrations have shifted the focus from the government squarely to the king. So far, Abdullah has largely maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his powers to parliament and amending several laws guaranteeing wider public freedoms.
But his opponents say the reforms are insufficient, and the violent protests Tuesday and Wednesday indicated many in Jordan are growing frustrated with the government's inability to address a host of trouble, mainly unemployment and poverty.
Jordanian government officials have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of inciting the unrest to score political points ahead of parliamentary elections in January. The fundamentalist group is boycotting the polls over disagreement with the government on an election law that it says favors pro-king loyalists.
Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr, however, said his group "isn't against the king."
"Our followers in the protests did not call on his downfall," he said. "But we want him to seriously introduce real reforms to ease the popular agitation that may lead to an explosion in the street."