KABUL Protests over the burning of Korans at a NATO base may have faded but some Afghans are still venting their rage over the incident -- at a bloody Kabul dogfighting ring.
If emotions here are any indication, desecration of copies of the Muslim holy book did lasting damage to the image of the United States, which is struggling to pacify the country before NATO combat troops leave at the end of 2014.
"We call the dogs who lose Americans. We are furious about the Korans," said Mirwais Haji, 28, as a defeated canine limped off the snow-covered dirt ring on the edge of the capital.
"We want the Afghan government to bring the people who did this to us. We will kill them ourselves."
The burning of the Korans last month triggered widespread protests and a string of fatal attacks by Afghan security forces on NATO soldiers.
The killing of two U.S. officers by an Afghan policeman in the Interior Ministry stunned NATO and cast doubt on its strategy of replacing large combat units with advisers as the alliance tries to wind down the war, now in its eleventh year.
An apology by U.S. President Barack Obama has failed to ease the anger over an incident that has hurt a U.S. campaign to win hearts and minds to gain an edge over the Taliban and force them to negotiate peace.
The Koran burning incident underscored how U.S.-led NATO troops still fail to grasp Afghanistan's religious and cultural sensitivities despite their long presence in the country.
That insensitivity could have far-reaching consequences for U.S. policy.
Thousands of people gather in a circle each Friday to watch large Afghan fighting dogs, known as Kuchis, attack each other in 30-second contests below mountains on the edge of Kabul.
Some do it for entertainment, betting up to $4,000 on a single fight, as vendors sell peanuts, tangerines and potatoes.
For others, it's an escape from frustrations over everything from unemployment, to the war to rampant government corruption.
This Friday, several people were still riveted by the Koran burnings, which NATO called a tragic blunder. Gripped by anti-American sentiment, they cheered on dogs who growled, stood on their hind legs and tore at each other's throats.
"We are tired of the Americans and what they do with the Korans and other incidents," said Akmal Bahadoor, 18, an airport employee, as some of the dogs were held down by two men because they are so powerful and edgy.
"When we watch these dogs it's a way of expressing our anger against the Americans. We think the Americans are being attacked."
NATO is investigating the Koran burnings.
Western officials are hoping the outcry will soon pass so they can focus on other huge challenges before 2014. But there are no signs of that happening any time soon.
As young boys ran to get out of the way of a crazed dog that ran through the crowd, a few Afghan soldiers watched other canines charge each other.
"Even if the people who did this are prosecuted. The anger will never, ever go away. It will always be stuck in my heart," said one of them, 30-year-old Khalil Bazar.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)