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Jordanian Government Supporters and Opposition Clash, First Injuries in Weeks of Protests

DALE GAVLAK Associated Press

11:10 a.m. EST, February 18, 2011

AMMAN, Jordan (AP)

Clashes broke out Friday between government supporters and opponents at a protest calling for more freedom and lower food prices, injuring eight people in the first reported violence in weeks of demonstrations in Jordan.

It was the seventh straight Friday that Jordanians, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets to demand more say in decision-making.

The Amman protest drew about 2,000 people, including hard-line leftists, Muslim conservatives and students calling for reduced power for the king and the chance to elect members of the Cabinet.

Students from the growing "Jaayin" or "I'm Coming" movement chanted: "We want constitutional reforms. We want a complete change to policies."

Jordan's king enjoys absolute powers, ruling by decree and he can appoint and dismiss Cabinets and parliament whenever he wants.

"We want a complete overhaul of the political system, including the constitution, the parliament dissolved and new free and fair elections held," said movement member and teacher Amani Ghoul, insisting the protests will continue until their demands are met.

Activists such as Bashar Shahaatreh are demanding that Jordanians be able to elect their prime minister and Cabinet officials.

"There is no difference between this new prime minister and Cabinet appointed last week from the old one that was dismissed," he complained. He said high-level graft and corruption needed to be tackled.

About 200 government supporters trailed the protesters, chanting: "Our blood and souls, we sacrifice for you Abu Hussein" a reference to Jordan's King Abdullah II before clashing with the opposition march.

"They beat us with batons, pipes and hurled rocks at us," said Tareq Kmeil, a student at the protest. "We tried to defend ourselves, to beat them back."

He said at least eight people suffered fractures to the skull, arms or legs.

"Police didn't do anything to protect us," he said. "Police forces just stood on the side watching us getting beaten."

Police spokesman Mohammed al-Khatib said only four activists were wounded and three of them were treated at a hospital and released.

Government spokesman Taher Edwan condemned the attack and said authorities were investigating to see who was behind it.

"The attackers violated citizens' rights to express their opinions freely and organize demonstrations," Edwan said in a statement.

"The protesters as well as the police were suprised to see a group wielding batons and attacking other protesters, which led to the injury of several people," he added, saying the government was committed to freedom of speech and assembly.

Some pro-government supporters denounced Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, blaming it for spreading unrest across the Arab world. "Al-Jazeera is behind every sickness," read some of their signs.

Bedouin Sheik Walid al-Khatib joined the pro-government supporters, saying he had to come out to profess his support for king and country.

"I love King Abdullah and the stability of Jordan. I don't want this to ever change," he said.

About 300 protesters, including Bedouin tribesmen who form the bedrock of support for the king, took to the streets of the western town of Theiban. They demanded more freedoms and for the government to hand over lands used for grazing sheep and farming that were seized in the last century from nomads who settled areas without permission.

Still, ordinary Jordanians such as Akhram Ismail, 50, said citizens will not yet see an end to the protests.

The government employee of 17 years, who earns a meager $140 per month, said his salary was not enough to feed his six children and wants to see changes to aid the poor.

"The government recently promised civil servants a pay raise of $28, while politicians play with millions," he said.

___

Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby contributed reporting.




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