AMMAN // Authorities in Jordan have launched a nationwide manhunt after Islamic hard-liners clashed with police in Zarqa, injuring at least 83 people on Friday.
On Saturday, 70 Salafis were arrested after violence erupted during a rally on Friday of 400 Salafi protesters in Zarqa, the hometown of al Qa'eda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was killed in an air strike north-east of Baghdad in 2006.
Marouf Bakhit, the prime minister, vowed that authorities would track down others involved in the violence and warned that they would stand firm against any attempts to undermine the country's stability and security.
"The sight of people wielding swords, clubs and sharp objects and intimidating people will not occur again no matter what happens," he was quoted in the Petra news agency as saying on Saturday evening. "They will not go unpunished …. Violence, slogans of apostasy, fomenting intellectual terrorism and attacking pedestrians are gross violations of the law."
"We are now investigating the incident and examining all evidence including films and photos of the protest and we will question all those involved in the violence," Col Mohammad Khatib, the police spokesman, said. "Those guilty of attempting to instigate chaos and attempting to murder policemen will be arrested and questioned. Investigations have already begun with those arrested."
Among those arrested were Abdul Qader, Shehadeh Tahawi, Amer Dmour, Abdul Rahman Naqeeb and Saad Hneiti - leaders of the movement.
Salafis have staged protests several times in recent weeks, but their demonstrations are not connected to the pro-reform rallies sweeping the country since January, inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts.
Salafis say they have been encouraged with the new atmosphere of openness to come out and call for the implementation of their puritanical form of Islam and the release of 300 prisoners held since the late 1990s.
Chief among them is Abu Muhammad Al Maqdessi, Mr Zarqawis' mentor, currently on trial at the state security court, charged with recruiting individuals to join al Qa'eda and other terrorist organisations.
Despite their fiery sermons and their slogans of apostasy, their protests had been peaceful before last Friday when clashes erupted after a group of government loyalists attempted to break up their rally, and provoked them by cursing God and religion.
The public security chief, Lt Gen Hussein Majali, accused them Salafis of planning their attack against police because they were armed with swords and daggers, and said they sought to drag police into a bloody confrontation.
But the Salafis argued otherwise.
"The clashes have been orchestrated. The security bodies have provoked us into this," said Basam Nueimi, a 39-year old Salafi, who said he is wanted by the police. "They want to oppress us and our blessed ideology. We have protested seven times and there haven't been any (violence) with anyone, neither people nor the security. "This is a set up and the Mukhabarat( security) who control the country want to impose their will.
"We did not have weapons, but we took the knives from the baltajiyyeh (thugs) who attacked us. Thugs have been ordered to abort any of our rallies that call for implementing God's law."
For now, it is unclear what the Salafis will do next. "We are now in the process of consultations. Most of us are wanted," Mr Nueimi said.
Mr Nueimi said police raided his house on Saturday on the outskirts of Zarqa, but he was at a mosque praying.
Salafi Jihadist groups emerged in Jordan in the early 1990s in cities such as Zarqa, Salt and Maan.
Some speculate that the Salafis clashes may have been instigated to distract public attention from the reform debate or simply to try to have them banned from rallying altogether.
"There are some parties against reforms trying to sow the seeds of discord in the country and have exploited the Salafists, who are already known for their violence," Marwan Shehadeh, an Amman-based expert on Islamist movements, said.
But what happened on Friday will unlikely stall the calls for reform. "On the contrary," wrote Mohammad Abu Rumman, a prominent Jordanian analyst of radical Islamic with Alghad daily in Amman. "What happened will simply reinforce the calls for the reforms and the need to have moderate political movements.
"The alternative for reform results in a security and a political chaos with radical movements (hijacking)the youth."