The US called for calm in Afghanistan while it investigates allegations that US anti-terrorism interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book, triggering deadly protests across the country.
Protesters threw rocks and police shot back Friday as the anti-US protests spread to more Afghan cities, threatening a security crisis for the government of President Hamid Karzai.
The protests began after Newsweek magazine reported in its May 9 edition that interrogators at the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, placed Korans in washrooms to unsettle suspects, and "flushed a holy book down the toilet."
Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the US-led war against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials suggested opponents of the country's painstaking democratic rebirth were stirring up the trouble, while the US government appealed for calm and stressed that the desecration charge was being investigated by the Pentagon.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that if the allegations "are proven true, we will take appropriate action. Respect for the religious freedom for all individuals is one of the founding principles of the United States."
In neighboring Pakistan, street protests fizzled despite tough rhetoric from hard-line preachers, while the rest of the Muslim world was mostly quiet, with only small rallies at a Palestinian refugee camp and in Indonesia.
Friday's deaths -- reported in four Afghan towns and cities -- brought to 15 the number of people killed in the biggest outpouring of anti-American sentiment since a US-led military campaign drove the Taliban regime from power at the end of 2001.
Afghan officials said some of the protesters chanting anti-American slogans and stoning the offices of international relief groups are being encouraged by factions that have resisted UN disarmament drives or been sidelined by Karzai's government.
"This is organized by particular groups who are the enemies of Afghanistan," Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal told reporters. "They are trying to show that the situation -- that security -- is not good."
Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, an Islamic cleric and close ally of Karzai, told worshippers in Kabul's main mosque Friday that the violence was against Islam.
"The ones who are here to help us and help our government, until they leave our country, we should respect them," Mujaddedi said.
He claimed "foreign hands" were stirring the violence -- words often used to accuse Pakistan, where leaders of the Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islami group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are believed to find refuge.
Shooting broke out in the southeastern city of Ghazni as protesters swarmed toward a police station and the governor's residence after Friday prayers, chanting "Death to America" and pelting the buildings with rocks, witnesses said.
Shafiqullah Shafaq, a doctor at the city's hospital, told reporters that two civilians and a police officer were fatally shot and 21 people were wounded, including the provincial police chief.
In northeastern Badakhshan province, three men died when police opened fire trying to control hundreds of protesters in Baharak district, Governor Abdul Majid said. Twenty-two people were reported hurt, including three police officers.
Majid said the crowd set fire to the offices of a British aid group and Focus, a reconstruction agency financed by the Aga Khan Foundation, a fund set up by the spiritual leader of the world's 20 million Ismaili Muslims.