Sweden moves to defuse row over Prophet cartoon

STOCKHOLM Sun Sep 16, 2007 3:00pm EDT

Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks talks to the media at the entrance of the national Swedish Television headquarters in Stockholm, September 16, 2007. The head of an al Qaeda-led group in Iraq has offered $100,000 for the killing of Vilks for his drawing of Islam's Prophet Mohammad and threatened to attack big Swedish companies. REUTERS/Henrik Montgomery/Scanpix

Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks talks to the media at the entrance of the national Swedish Television headquarters in Stockholm, September 16, 2007. The head of an al Qaeda-led group in Iraq has offered $100,000 for the killing of Vilks for his drawing of Islam's Prophet Mohammad and threatened to attack big Swedish companies.

Credit: Reuters/Henrik Montgomery/Scanpix

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden's "political jujitsu" may yet prevent uproar among Muslims over a Swedish cartoonist's drawing of a dog with the head of the Prophet Mohammad despite an al Qaeda threat at the weekend.

Security experts said conciliatory steps by the government and Swedish Muslim leaders were directed at preventing a rerun of the anger that swept the Middle East last year over a similar incident in Denmark.

Islam forbids images of the Prophet and deems dogs unclean.

"The government has performed what I would liken to political jujitsu on the issue: absorbing the enemy's energy," said terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp at the Swedish National Defence College.

On Saturday, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, offered $100,000 for the murder of Swedish artist Lars Vilks for his depiction of the Prophet Mohammad.

He slapped a lesser bounty on the editor of daily Nerikes Allehanda, which published the drawing last month in what it called a defence of free speech, and threatened top Swedish firms such as truck maker Volvo, Ericsson and Ikea.

Up until now, the publication had drawn little more than diplomatic disapproval and isolated demonstrations.

But Ranstorp said: "I think certainly there is an increased danger given the attention that comes with an al Qaeda threat specifically towards a newspaper and the artist himself."

ISOLATED ATTACKS

In an interview with local news agency TT on Sunday, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called for calm. He has already won praise from Muslim diplomats for meeting them soon after the drawing's publication to try to defuse the tension.

"We shall deny all who call for the use of violence and keep at bay the extremist's attempts to worsen the issue," he said.

He said the government has been watching developments closely, including monitoring media reports in the Muslim world and talking to Muslim representatives in Sweden and abroad.

Muslim groups in Sweden have rejected the threats.

Swedish Islamic leader Mahmoud Aldebe told Reuters his group had sent a letter to Arab newspapers demanding the threats be withdrawn, saying the issue should stay a Swedish matter only.

This is in stark contrast to Denmark, where dialogue between government and Muslims broke down last year at the height of a crisis over Prophet Mohammad cartoons and radical imams traveled to the Middle East to fan Islamic anger.

"In the Danish cartoon issue, the community in Copenhagen was the one who began the campaign," said author Walid Phares, visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. "What we have now is a different story. It may end up the same, but it's really different so it could be controlled."

The key distinction, he said, is the origin of the threat.

"The reason why Baghdadi issued that is because al Qaeda is under pressure in Iraq -- they have the fighting with the local tribes, the government is pressing them, the whole magma in Iraq is putting pressure on them," Phares said.

He said Swedish Muslim leaders' refusal to sign on makes isolated attacks by jihadist groups more likely than the mass protests triggered in the Danish crisis.

Danish terrorism expert Mikael Taarnby saw a higher security risk for Sweden, although he said interest could ebb quickly.

Still, he said, "these things are unpredictable and they do have the potential to escalate and develop into a crisis of some sort. And when that happens, it becomes very difficult to stop."

Vilks arrived back in Sweden from Germany on Sunday and police said he might be offered protection. Swedish firms, meanwhile, were looking at ways to lower their profile.

Jakob Larsson, Swedish security police spokesman, said his agency had prepared a terrorism risk analysis and called in extra staff to watch developments. He said Sweden's terrorism threat level remained low.

If the incident does eventually spark grassroots anger against Sweden, the main impact may be economic.

Last year's Danish crisis, triggered when cartoons of the Prophet were reprinted around the world, saw at least 50 people killed in riots in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, along with attacks against Danish embassies and a boycott of Danish goods.

(Additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom)

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